We Hung Out with Penny Oleksiak's Friends and Watched the 16-year-old Olympic Star Make History
The biggest Canadian star at Rio is a teenager who has already won three medals. We met up with her friends and got to know her better.
Photo by Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press
A little less than a week ago, Penny Oleksiak was just another teenager. OK, sure, she was a damn good swimmer on her way to the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro which is more than most teenagers are preparing for less than two months after turning 16 years old. But you would have had a hard time finding too many people that could recognize her name.
How fleeting anonymity can be, though, when you are an Olympic athlete. Just five days into the Rio Games, Oleksiak has quickly become Canada's face of the Olympics, earning two bronze medals and a silver. Her Twitter account has grown to over 8,000 followers from around 800 and become verified. Her Instagram fame is quickly expanding as well, now up to 15,000 followers. She added close to 2,000 alone on Instagram in the three hours or so after anchoring Team Canada to bronze in a Canadian record-setting 4x200 metre freestyle relay performance on Wednesday night to capture her third medal at Rio.
Those three medals matched the record for the most won by a Canadian swimmer at a single Olympic event, set three times before by Victor Davis and Anne Ottenbrite in 1984, and Elaine Tanner in 1968. Only six Canadian Olympians in any sport have ever won three medals in the Summer Games. She also became the first Canadian to win three Olympic medals in any sport before turning 17 years old. Penny Oleksiak is suddenly famous.
But as exciting as the success surely has been for Oleksiak herself, it's been just as enthralling for her close friends Alexis Bragman, Katja Pavicevic, Mackenzie Holden and Thomas Van Maren from the Toronto Swim Club. They have found themselves watching the girl they hang out with becoming a national celebrity overnight. And they couldn't be happier for her.
"It's kind of surreal, especially when you know somebody so well," said Holden. "In the past Olympics you see these superstars like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte and you're just thinking, 'Wow those guys are swimming legends' and then there is one of your really good friends competing in the same pool. It's just surreal to see her on that stage."
"It's so crazy to see someone you know so closely be on television and doing so well, too," added Bragman. "She's so young compared to other people in these races and it makes us feel so proud to see how well she's handling herself in such a big environment. It's so exciting for her friends, too, because it really feels like we are there as well with having her there."
"I just remember watching her swim her first provincial race and I thought, 'Oh my God, this girl is killing it.' She was like 20 or 25 metres ahead of everyone," recalled Pavicevic when she first saw Oleksiak swim. "I just thought, how is she doing this? And you look at her now and she's almost doing the exact same thing."
Not surprisingly the group has been following Oleksiak's results closely, so when it came time for her to compete Wednesday night in the 100 metre freestyle and 4x200 freestyle relay, Bragman organized a viewing party at her home in Toronto to cheer on their friend in Rio. So excited they were to gush about their friend that they welcomed this humble reporter to attend the gathering and join in the celebration of Oleksiak's triumph.
What followed as I hung out for an hour and a half was what the Olympics are really all about. The five of us talked swimming, we shared stories about Penny, we watched, we cheered, we stared at the TV in disbelief when the graphic flashed up that showed she had finished second in the 100 metre semis to Cate Campbell, and missed an Olympic record by just .01 seconds.
But we re-erupted in cheers again when we realized that her time of 52.72 seconds was still good enough to set a new Canadian record. Not only was Penny and the Olympics a big topic, but when Mackenzie and I realized we had both attended the same high school, Royal St. George's College, albeit 11 years apart, we immediately had to share stories of our favourite teachers who had been at the school long enough to teach us both. It's incredible how the Olympics can somehow bring complete strangers together.
As the race was about to begin, and Oleksiak was getting ready on the blocks, the tension in our room was palpable. These four friends desperately wanted Oleksiak to succeed in a semifinal with a strong field. "I'm so nervous I'm starting to sneeze," exclaimed Bragman.
It was clear throughout the party the genuine pride and joy the four friends felt for Penny. On the coffee table was a stack of newspapers from earlier in the week, with Oleksiak and her silver medal from the 100 metre butterfly on the cover. Bragman loaded up on the papers after stopping in her tracks when she saw her friend on the front page.
"You go everywhere right now and everything is all Penny Oleksiak," Bragman said. "I remember walking down the street earlier this week and I turned and saw her face on the newspaper. I picked up a bunch of them because I just wanted to stare at them. I was like, 'Oh my God, that's my friend on the cover of the Toronto Sun.' It's so surreal."
Even though her friends are not with Oleksiak in Rio, they are still talking constantly throughout the day—Snapchat seemed to be the method of choice—and supporting her as best they can to keep things as normal as possible, Bragman explained.
"I just snapchatted her about Kylie Jenner's new lip kit, just things that aren't about swimming to make her feel comfortable and not get her nervous," said Bragman.
As Oleksiak is quickly on her way to becoming one of Canada's all-time swimming greats at just 16 years old, I wondered if she had truly expected herself to have this much success so soon. A lot of the top swimmers like Katie Ledecky, Sarah Sjostrom and Cate and Bronte Campbell are in their late teens and early 20s, so it seemed like the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 were a more realistic target for Oleksiak to start hitting the podium when she would be 20 years old. It turns out, she did not want to wait that long.
"I was always saying 2020, she will be up there breaking world records and getting medals, like watch out for the name Penny Oleksiak," Bragman said. "I knew people would know her in the upcoming years—I did not think it would be in the next couple of months."
To get to the Olympics, everybody has talent. But what turns talent into greatness? Her friends kept coming back to her attitude.
"Penny has the strongest mental game you will ever find," said Bragman. "When she wants to win, she will do everything in her power to do it."
"Definitely her attitude. She has the talent and skill, obviously, she has the technique down, but it's her drive and attitude that give her the edge on everyone," added Pavicevic. "You definitely don't come across a lot of swimmers with her type of attitude. When you talk to Penny before her race, she might come off as a little nervous and joke that 'Oh yeah, I'm not going to do so well,' but deep down you know that she knows that she's good and when you have that attitude and you have confidence in yourself, that's what gives her an edge."
The way the friends can tell if Penny is a little nervous before a race is when she fidgets with her goggles on the starting blocks. Some concern came over the room when some fidgeting was noticed as she got in the blocks for the 100 metre freestyle semis. But clearly, after setting a Canadian Olympic record time and falling .01 of a second shy of an Olympic world record, it was that inner confidence that overtook any nervousness.
Pavicevic recalled a story from a provincial competition a few years back where Oleksiak was competing in the 200 metre backstroke and lost count of the number of laps she had done, stopping at 150 metres. As she had taken her swimming cap and goggles off, Pavicevic said she and Penny's mom, Alison, started yelling as loud as possible to get her attention to tell her she wasn't finished. Penny didn't flinch and didn't even put her goggles back on. She just got going again and did one more lap, still winning the race by a good ten metres.
"That's when I knew she was something," said Pavicevic. "Penny just got out of the pool and laughed it off."
I had to get the friends to tell me a good story about the girl Holden describes as rambunctious, fun, enthusiastic, always laughing and making fun of everyone and herself. Van Maren immediately knew the one to tell. It involved not just Oleksiak, but Bragman, too.
"There was this team barbecue we had at the end of last summer to celebrate the whole swimming season," started Van Maren. "Penny was going to come a little later, she was going to bike over with Alexis. On the way there, just over a month away from the world junior championships, she falls off her bike and breaks her elbow."
"Both of us fell!" Bragman, who also suffered a fracture in the incident, interjected. "The tires got stuck in the streetcar tracks and we both fell."
"She recovered in time, though, and just worked on kicking for five straight weeks and went on to win six medals at the world juniors later in August," continued Van Maren. "But we were all there at the barbecue waiting for them to show up and they never came. So we started texting them and it's like, 'We're at the hospital.' The first thing that went through my mind was, 'Doesn't she have to swim in like a month?' But we know Penny and she was just like, 'I'm going to just kick for a few weeks and everything is going to be OK.'"
"There was a lot of stress at the moment I think when Penny thought she might miss the world juniors, but that's what made it even more special for her," said Brgaman. "She did so amazing with six medals having gone through such a rough preparation. She did not have the proper preparation and she was still able to perform as well as she did."
Holden was quick to add that none of this heartache and stress needed to happen, though. "I offered them both drives but oh they wanted to be healthy," he laughed. "And then look what happened. I'm never going to let them live that down."
If anything, Holden said he needed something like that to have to throw back at Penny. "She beat me in the 200 metre freestyle a few months before and never let me live that down," he said. "It was kind of humbling, and I'm three years older than her!"
Now with three Olympic medals and counting, Oleksiak's quick rise to fame has been noticed by her close group of friends. All of a sudden friends of friends are realizing Bragman knows Oleksiak and are piping up.
"I have friends reaching out to me being like, 'Oh my God, Penny Oleksiak, you know her?' It's just crazy because you see these people like Michael Phelps who's known everywhere for their success and now one of our close friends is at that same level and it's just amazing," said Bragman. "She definitely deserves this, 100 percent."
"I was in Edmonton earlier in the week and I bought a wallet at the Kate Spade store and I was paying," said Pavicevic. "The lady cashing me in was talking to her co-worker saying, 'Man, did you watch that 16-year-old last night?' So I said, 'Wait, are you guys talking about Penny Oleksiak? I know her, I used to swim with her.' I started getting really excited and being really animated. My mom had to be like, 'Calm down, Katja, it's OK.'"
As good a week as it's been for Oleksiak, it hasn't been perfect. A huge Drake fan, Oleksiak could not attend Ovo Fest at the beginning of August. She was kind of busy preparing for the Olympics. With Drake on his way back to Toronto for another couple of concerts in October, Oleksiak took some time on Wednesday morning while in Rio to try to grab some tickets for one of those shows, but safe to say her success in getting Drake tickets did not match her success in the pool. So she turned to her Twitter account to start dropping some hints to see if Drake would like to have an Olympic medallist attend one of his shows. Oleksiak's friends are giving her a hard time about it.
"We made fun of her for it," joked Bragman. "Really using that fame there, eh?"
"I think his PR team is going to see it, I bet she's going to get them. It's a good shot," Pavicevic added.
Later tonight, Oleksiak will go for her fourth medal of the Olympics in the 100 metre freestyle. And with any luck, to the Drake concert in October.