RIO DE JANEIRO – I’ve called this the best collection of athletes the Buffalo area has ever sent to an Olympics. Well, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to add an honorary local to the list from our good neighbors to the North.
Penny Oleksiak, the 16-year-old aquatic sensation, is the biggest thing to come along in Canadian swimming in decades. She traces her athletic roots to Buffalo and the Nichols School, where her father, Richard, graduated 50 years ago after a Hall of Fame career in football, basketball and track.
Oleksiak, who took up the sport five years ago, is considered the future of Canadian swimming. But the future arrived early here in Rio. She anchored the women’s 400-freestyle relay to a bronze medal on Saturday night and followed it up with an individual silver in the 200-meter butterfly here Sunday night.
That’s two medals in two nights for a nation that had earned just four swimming medals in the four previous summer Games combined. She’s the good swim queen of the North, and her family says it’s OK if we claim her as well.
“Oh yeah, you can have a piece of her,” said her sister, Hayley, sitting high in the stands at Estadio Aquatico Olimpico before the race. “She’s Canadian born and raised, but with a Buffalo father, and she has that Buffalo grit. You know, the winters and all that grittiness you guys deal with there.
“She holds that in her heart, too.”
She owes her height to her dad, who stands 6-foot-9. The swimming genes can be credited to her mother, Alison, who set swimming records in Scotland before immigrating to Canada. Richard moved to Canada after marrying her some 30 years ago.
Richard still has his U.S. citizenship, which allowed his son, Jamie to represent either country. Jamie, a 6-7 defenseman for the Dallas Stars, was the 14th pick of the 2011 NHL draft. He played for Canada’s bronze medal winners at the 2012 Juniors. He played a year of college hockey at Northeastern, where Hayley, is a top varsity rower.
Oleksiak, who attended his 50th Nichols reunion this summer, has two other children from his previous marriage, Jake and Claire, who grew up and attended high school in Buffalo.
Penny began swimming competitively after getting a few tips from her mother. Ben Titley, the Canadian team’s head coach, saw her for the first time as a “tall, gangly” 11-year-old and asked if he could speak with her.
Titley shook her hand that day and said it felt like shaking the hand of a professional basketball player. She had the big hands and at 6-1, the natural physique of a top swimmer, and she quickly proved it in the pool.
She has been called a “natural-born racer.” In 2015, at 15, Oleksiak won six medals, three individual, in the world junior championships. At the Canadian trials in April, she set a national record in the 100-meter butterfly (56.99) and was female athlete of the trials.
Oleksiak beat that mark with a 56.73 in the qualifying round of the Olympic 100 fly on Saturday afternoon, setting the junior world record in the process. That night, she swam an electrifying anchor leg as the young Canadian women took bronze in the 4x100 free relay.
Oleksiak teamed with Sandrine Mainville, Chantal Van Landeghem and Taylor Ruck – her fellow 16-year-old – for a medal that validated Penny as the best swimming prospect to come along across our border in many years.
“Penny is an oddball,” said Van Landeghem, a 22-year-old from Winnipeg. “She doesn’t seem like a 16-year-old. She’s very mature for her age. She’s glued to her phone, though. Different generation. If we have any questions about what’s hip or what’s happening, we’ll ask Penny.”
There’s no question that Oleksiak heralds a new generation of Canadian swimming. She validated her nation’s hopes again Sunday, storming from behind to win silver – again breaking the junior world record – after being out of the medals halfway through the race.
Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, the clear favorite, won the gold and broke her own world record with a 55.48 clocking. Oleksiak was nearly a full second back at 56.46. American Dana Vollmer, trying to defend her gold from London just 16 months after giving birth to a son, was third in 56.63.
“I was definitely nervous a few hours ago,” Oleksiak said. “But a few minutes before the race, I wasn’t nervous because I had my coach’s and teammates’ support. They all just told me to have a fun time because I still have the next Olympics to medal. That just took my nerves away.
“During the race I wasn’t even thinking,” she said. “I was just trying to keep my head down and race as fast as I could.”
Oleksiak was in fourth place, out of the medals, after 50 meters. But she turned it on in her customary fashion, surged into third and then reeled in Vollmer for second.
“It’s something I’ve been working on,” she said of her signature closing surge. “My first coach told me I had to have a good finish. It’s something that I’ve developed over my years of swimming. I don’t try to hold back. The last 10 meters you have to put in everything you have left because once the race is over, you’re probably going to regret it if you don’t.
“The first few seconds after I touched the wall, I didn’t even look back,” Oleksiak said. “I was just trying to catch my breath. I wasn’t even sure I medaled until I looked up and saw all the Canadian flags around me. Getting to see that is just an amazing feeling.”
The first people she looked for were her parents, who were sitting in the lower stands behind the finish line in a large contingent of Canadians. Penny blew a kiss their way.
“I saw my Dad,” she said. “He stood up and waved to me. He was literally the only thing I saw in the crowd. Everything else was just a blur.”