Dave Feschuk: Penny Oleksiak, Canadian swim relay team set the tone at Tokyo Olympics pool with clutch silver medal

Dave Feschuk: Penny Oleksiak, Canadian swim relay team set the tone at Tokyo Olympics pool with clutch silver medal
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TOKYO—As Penny Oleksiak coiled and dove at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Sunday, with Canada running fourth place in the women’s 4x100-metre freestyle relay and an Olympic medal in the balance, there were no spectators in attendance.

But there was quite a noise to be heard — both on the pool deck and, apparently, in Oleksiak’s head. At these COVID Olympics , where Tokyo’s citizens have been told to stay home even though they paid for the show, it seems as though the athletes will largely be their own cheering section. Fellow Olympic swimmers have been permitted to cheer for teammates from the stands, and Canada’s small contingent was doing a nice job of making a ruckus for the team made up of Oleksiak, Kayla Sanchez, Rebecca Smith and Margaret Mac Neil.

But none of it could be mistaken for the booming roar of a full arena. So as Oleksiak waited for her turn, she wasn’t afraid to raise the volume, both externally and internally.

“A lot of swearing before the race from me, I’m yelling at the girls,” Oleksiak said. “And I’m on the block, yelling at myself.”

What, precisely, was she yelling at herself as fellow anchors from Australia, the United States and Sweden hit the pool ahead of her with 100 metres remaining?

“Eff yeah,” Oleksiak said. “Let’s go!”

A high-pressure moment met with a primal battle cry, internalized or otherwise, was soon followed up by a clutch performance for the world to see. A little less than a minute later the 16-year-old phenom from the Beach who won four medals in Rio de Janeiro five years ago had confirmed her status as a 21-year-old all-time great.

Oleksiak, in reeling off the fastest 100-metre relay split of her career, didn’t simply deliver a swim for the ages to give Canada an ice-breaking silver medal, the country’s first of these Games. She didn’t simply join Phil Edwards and Lesley Thompson-Willie as the only Canadians with a quintet of medals won in summer Games. She did those things while beating the vaunted Americans — the first time Canada had defeated the U.S. in the women’s 4x100-metre freestyle relay.

And she did it while beating a rival. Five years ago in Rio Oleksiak and Simone Manuel of the U.S. tied for gold in the 100-metre freestyle. Five years later, Oleksiak trailed Manuel by 0.67 seconds when she entered the water, but chased her down to touch the wall in second place behind a world-record performance from Australia. The U.S. won bronze.

“I knew I wasn’t going to touch third,” Oleksiak said. “When I make a decision in a race, I have to execute it. I wanted a silver medal for these girls, and wouldn’t accept anything else.”

It was the country’s first podium finish at these long-awaited, no-expectations Tokyo Olympics , where Canadian Olympic Committee officials have insisted the conditions of the pandemic have made it impossible to set a performance standard for Canada’s medal count. But if recent history is a guide, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe the women’s 4x100-metre freestyle relay is a harbinger of good times ahead — at least in the pool.

“It kind of gets everyone on a high for the rest of the meet,” said Sanchez. “Hopefully it gets everyone in the right kind of mindset and mood.”

Canada coach Ben Titley cautioned that a meet-opening podium can take a team one of two ways.

“It can motivate people. It can take a weight off people’s shoulders. Or sometimes people can sit back,” Titley said. “And it’s the job now of the staff and the athletes to make sure that’s used as motivation and we continue to push things on.”

When a Canadian team anchored by Oleksiak won bronze in the women’s 4x100-metre freestyle relay in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, it turned out to be a tone-setter for a watershed performance in the pool. A day later, Oleksiak would win silver in the 100-metre butterfly, the second of an incredible haul of four Olympic medals for the then-16-year-old phenom — the most by a Canadian in a single summer Games. In all, Canada would win six swimming medals in Rio.

Not that past performance ever guarantees future results. For Oleksiak, Sunday’s medal performance came in the wake of an uncertain quadrennial, topped by a year’s COVID postponement, that followed her Brazilian breakthrough. In the intervening years, she battled burnout and various injuries, not to mention her long-held dislike for training. (She prefers racing, and says she only came to finally embrace the grind of endless practice laps when the pandemic largely took racing away).

Admittedly overwhelmed by the pressure of the expectation of her new-found stardom, she took a hiatus from the sport in 2018. And then came the discombobulation of the pandemic, which threw athletes around the world for a loop — none more than Canada’s. As Titley pointed out after the race: Canada’s best swimmers came into these Olympics have raced once in the past 18 months.

“There isn’t another country in the world that I’m aware of — certainly one that’s involved in finals and shooting for medals — that has been anywhere close to that sort of scenario,” said Titley. “We’re the only ones. And you don’t get better at something by not doing it. It doesn’t matter if that’s learning to drive, ski, eating pasta or using chopsticks. It doesn’t matter. You don’t get better at something if you can’t practise it. We haven’t had a chance to practise it. That’s been a stress. That’s been emotional. That’s why that relay there meant so much.”

If Canada’s 4x100-metre freestyle relay team hadn’t lately had a chance to practise competing, maybe it helped that they’ve grown up navigating the highs and lows of elite sport together.

“We have a lot of faith in each other and a lot of trust in each other,” Oleksiak said. “We know that if one of us is nervous, we can talk to someone else and hype each other up, ask some questions about how to swim the race. So it’s just nice to have that team to go to and these people to trust … We’ve known each other since we were all, what, 10? So it’s just crazy now — 10, 11 years later, on an Olympic team together, winning a silver medal. It’s wild.”

3 days ago

It also helped that Oleksiak appeared to rediscover her form in the lead-up to Tokyo. At the Canadian Olympic trials in Scarborough last month, she reeled off her fastest time since 2016 in beating a stacked field in her signature 100-metre freestyle.

“I’m excited to swim again,” she said in the wake of that win.

On Sunday she collaborated with a trio of teammates who speak to impressive stream of talent being produced by Canada’s high-performance program. Oleksiak was the only holdover from the 4x100-metre freestyle relay team that won bronze in Rio — although Taylor Ruck, who was on that team, swam in the preliminaries for Canada here in Tokyo, and though she was replaced by Mac Neil in the final, Ruck will receive a medal.

If it’s getting harder for Canada to style itself as an underdog, pandemic conditions aside, Canada’s best women’s freestylers are still awfully young pups. While the gold medallists from Australia featured three swimmer age 27 or older, nobody on Canada’s team was born before 2000. Mac Neil, the reigning world champion in the 100-metre butterfly, who advanced to that event’s final with a third-place finish in Sunday’s semifinal, is 21 years old. Ditto Oleksiak and Smith. Sanchez is 20.

“If we can go in, and a bunch of girls born in 2000 and after can intimidate a bunch of the older girls, it’s pretty fun,” Oleksiak was quoted as saying heading into these Games. “We’re all just going in there with no expectations.”

No expectations before that icebreaking silver medal, perhaps. With Sunday’s clutch performance, there’s every indication Oleksiak and the rest of Canada’s swimmers are poised to make plenty more noise.



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