Penny Oleksiak returns to competition at FINA short-course championships

Penny Oleksiak dove off the starting blocks at the Rio Olympics and into Canada’s collective heart. Over a few fabulous days, the 16-year-old became one of the country’s biggest sports stars.

And so the months since, said her coach Ben Titley, have been about growing into her newfound fame.

“For someone like Penny, these last three months have much more been about her general life, not her specific swimming, being OK with who she now is in the people’s eyes, getting back into school and doing well in school,” Titley said.

The 16-year-old from Toronto won four medals at the Rio Olympics, including gold in the 100-metre freestyle.

She’ll mark her return to international competition at the FINA world short-course championships, which open Tuesday in Windsor, Ont.

CBCSports.ca is streaming the FINA world short-course championships beginning Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. ET. 

There were a couple of crazy months after Oleksiak arrived home from Rio, but they weren’t unexpected.

“Those were all written into the plan: these are the months to get those things out of the way,” Titley said. “If you have to get out a little bit early [from training] because you have to go meet the Prime Minister, that’s OK.

“So it’s understood that that sort of October-November period was time for that, and that time now is hopefully been and gone for the most part.”

Short-course presents challenges

The world short-course championships should prove challenging for the six-foot-one Oleksiak. Short-course means swimming in a 25-metre pool, as opposed to the 50-metre pool used for the Olympics and most major international meets. There are twice as many turns, and double the time spent pushing off underwater.

They’re suited to a specific type of swimmer, Titley said.

“Penny is far more suited as a human and as a physical specimen to swimming in a long-course pool because it gives her more time to get up to speed. It’s not then broken up by trying to get legs that are 1.2 metres long whipped around, to push off a wall, and then underwater kick.”

Oleksiak said she’s been working on her short-course swimming.

“I’ve been trying…so I’m happy with myself,” she said. “Just working on my underwater and my breakouts, and learning how to not breathe as much during a race, because short-course you don’t have a lot of space.”

The young star spoke to reporters on the pool deck before a recent practice. She and Titley joked around. He made faces at her while she spoke to reporters. She tried not to laugh.

“Most of the time we’re having fun, I’m happy,” Oleksiak said. “I do get really nervous right before the race, but when I’m standing on the block, I just clear my mind. Ben tries to tell me to have fun, and that’s mainly my focus when I’m swimming.”

Oleksiak will only swim one individual race in Windsor, the 100-metre freestyle, but will be a key member of Canada’s relay teams.

High expectations for Canada

Michelle Williams of Toronto was part of the 4×100 freestyle relay that won bronze in Rio, and said expectations are high for Canada’s teams in Windsor.

She talked about her team riding the Olympic wave of success Oleksiak started.

“One performance builds on another, and you see one person doing well, and you think ‘Hey, why not?’ That was the vibe of the Olympics,” Williams said. “So our job will be to get the ball rolling right at the beginning in Windsor. And the first day is the 4×100 relay.”

The ultimate focus this season are the world championships next summer in Budapest and Titley added that having a major global event in Canada is great for the sport. 

“To bring a spotlight to swimming in Canada is a very positive thing,” Titley said. “And once our athletes are in that competitive environment, and you’ve got the Canadian crowd onside, they’ll have a fabulous time.”

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