A Star Is Born

Penny Oleksiak returned home from the Rio Olympics a national hero. But what happens when you want to be the best swimmer in the world and a normal teenager?

None of this is normal. It’s not normal to have just celebrated a 16th birthday and then, bam, eight weeks later, to be at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, pulling on goggles, shaking out arms and legs, readying to dive into the pool for the 100-metre freestyle. It’s not normal to be standing a few metres away from Michael Phelps in the ready room alongside the best swimmers in the world. It’s also not normal to be part of a family that includes, among other elite athletes, a brother in the NHL, or to be over six feet tall with a massive wingspan, or to have already earned three medals by day six of one’s first-ever senior international swimming event. But there she is on the blocks, 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak, a normal teen from the Beaches.

Butt up, dive, front crawl. The cord between spectator and swimmer is severed, and Oleksiak is loosed into a different atmosphere. What swimmers talk about when they talk about swimming are the silence and the solitude. What does Penny Oleksiak think about? Song lyrics, sometimes. She is a fan of gangster rap. A friend gave her a book of Tupac’s poems recently, and she has composed a few stanzas of her own, though she’s too shy to show them to anybody. But mostly, inside her head, in the water, it’s just…nothing. And that’s calming. Silence is her rock, she says.

At the turn, she’s seventh out of eight, almost a full second behind the favourite. But Oleksiak is a closer. Oleksiak chases, and Oleksiak closes. In the final 15 metres, it looks like she decides, “Okay then, no more time for this whole breathing thing,” and she goes under, under, under, only surfacing to touch the wall—and it’s done. Two lengths in just 52.7 seconds. She pops above the water and removes one Q-tip swimming cap to reveal another, and then she just kind of treads water and hangs out. She doesn’t look at the board, a habit she later explains as: “I know I did the best I could, so I don’t really need to look.” But this time, she senses a rustling in the bleachers. The dry world has erupted, so she looks at the board. And she has won gold. Gold! Well, tied, technically, with an American, Simone Manuel. But still, gold! And an Olympic record at that. To Canadians, and especially Torontonians, watching their hometown girl make good—four medals in six days—Penny Oleksiak is brand new and delightful. She’s a teen from Monarch Park Collegiate, and with her sleepy grin and ropey, perpetually wet hair, she’s charmingly low-key, a little bemused by the attention.

AUGUST 2016: At the Olympics in Rio, when Oleksiak, then just 16, won gold in the 100-metre freestyle. Getty Images

In the days that followed, Oleksiak was called on to bear the flag (which she says is surprisingly light), and Drake instagrammed her picture, unleashing maximum punctuation: “We are so proud of you!!!!” The return to Toronto brought TV crews outside her high school and a slew of appearances at swim clubs, charity events and awards ceremonies, such as when she won the 2016 Lou Marsh Trophy for best Canadian athlete. Over the next year, she threw the first pitch at a Blue Jays game and took a trip with the We organization to Kenya, where she was kissed by a giraffe. She got a standing ovation while presenting an award with Jason Priestley at the Canadian Screen Awards, did a cameo dressed as a cannon doll in the National Ballet’s Nutcracker, and signed sponsorship deals with ASICS and RBC.

Oleksiak handled this tidal wave of attention graciously, waiting until the last kid in line had an autograph, even if it took three hours. When she’d go shopping at the Eaton Centre and get cornered by fans looking for selfies and signatures, her friends would be all, “Come on, Pen,” and Oleksiak would say, “No, no. I’m lucky. This is my job.”

But the sudden onset of fame is a lot to handle. Oleksiak and the people around her couldn’t have anticipated the effects of the surging attention and commitments that suddenly engulfed the young athlete. Even though her many declarations of “#blessed” seemed genuine, the weight of expectations on any star is a burden that even the most world-weary adults have a tough time shouldering, let alone a 16-year-old who still didn’t have her driver’s licence. Oleksiak’s dramatic breakthrough arrived at peak adolescence, a time when kids are trying to figure out what it is to be normal (even if only to reject the consensus). Love, friendship, school—is any of this normal?, the teen asks herself constantly. What…is…happening?

But in sport, normal sucks; the best are the outliers, the abnormals, the exceptions. Oleksiak’s desire to be the very best—the one in a million—was realized on the public stage at exactly the moment in the life cycle when most people are privately (and often quite badly) becoming fully actualized, rounded humans like everyone else. This unusual timing has gone terribly wrong for a lot of young success stories, like child actors and boy bands and even athletes. Elaine Tanner was a 15-year-old Canadian swim star who triumphed at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1966. She went on to win three medals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, but none were gold, and Tanner returned home a failure. She retired at age 18, followed by decades of personal turmoil, debt and depression.

It’s a lot to do extraordinary things, and it’s a lot do the ordinary work of growing up—the messy emotions and hormonal spikes; the stumbles and romances and friendships and mind-expanding thinking that collide as you figure out who you are. In Oleksiak’s case, add to the mix the surprise role of “national treasure,” and something’s got to give.

Oleksiak was rejected by the first three swim clubs she tried out for, a story that conjures up the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts returns to the Rodeo Drive boutiques that had rebuffed her, waving shopping bags and yelling, “Big mistake! Big! HUGE!” In fact, the rejections weren’t unfounded: at age nine, Penny wasn’t a very good swimmer. But after a summer spent in a neighbour’s backyard pool, she was interested. And once she’d tried volleyball, figure skating, soccer, jazz dance, ballet and rhythmic gymnastics, it was kind of the only sport left. Her parents, Alison, a systems engineer for IBM, and Richard, a writer, approached a small outfit in Scarborough called the Toronto Olympian Swim Team. The coach, Gary Nolden, took note of Penny’s big hands and feet and her six-foot-nine father (this is the trifecta—hands, feet, dad—that coaches mention when describing what first struck them about meeting Penny). Long torsos and long arms help swimmers cut through the water with less resistance and less wake. Nolden watched her swim, and—oy. Was that—what?—the front crawl? She did not know the strokes and her limbs were not entirely under her control. Young Penny has been described as Bambi on ice in the water.

There are two kinds of swimmers, according to Nolden: those who fight the water and those who feel it. Over time, as Penny grew, she became light in the water. Unlike a lot of tall kids in the midst of rapid growth, she knew where her fingers and toes ended, and she could keep her core and body firmly in position, moving efficiently, torpedo-like. She was also highly coachable: mistake, direction, correction. She was tough, too: once, when doing push-ups at the edge of the pool, her hand slipped, and she smashed her mouth on the deck, breaking her tooth and exposing the nerve. She showed up the next morning to train, a dark gap in her smile.

What she needed was someone to pursue. At practice, she was always passing the kids in her own lane, and in her first season she jumped up two levels. A year later, Penny was training alongside a teammate three years her senior.

Bill O’Toole, a coach from the Toronto Swim Club, saw her swim (hands, feet, dad), and Penny soon moved to the bigger club, based at the U of T pool on Harbord and home to several elite swimmers. O’Toole describes 13-year-old Penny as serious-minded and quiet but also, when at ease, a goofball: Yoda, if Yoda were into Wendy’s and pranking.

Oleksiak kept winning. At the 2014 Canadian Age Group Championships, when she was 14, she won 10 individual medals—five gold, three silver and two bronze—plus three relay golds. Each individual race was a personal best.

Ben Titley, the British-born coach of the Canadian national team, saw Penny training in the pool at U of T his first week in Canada, in 2012. Titley is a wry, hard-nosed, salt-and-pepper-haired Brit—a wunderkind “get” for Canadian swimming who had coached his swimmers to 120 medals by the time he arrived in Canada to kick-start the national program at age 34. Titley took notice of Penny (hands, dad—he actually thinks her feet could be bigger) and invited her to train with the national team once a week, just to give her a sense that there really were people faster than her out there. At the World Juniors in Singapore, when she was 15 years old, Oleksiak won six medals.

One year before the Rio Olympics, Oleksiak officially joined the national program, which had moved to the new High Performance Centre in Scarborough built for the Pan-Am Games. The older swimmers nicknamed her “The Child.” Once her initial shyness melted away, Oleksiak’s role in the swim family became the cheerful little sister, the confidence-builder who would dance in the ready room, joking around to calm her nerves.

“Her perception of reality was skewed,” said Titley. “She thought it was normal to be chasing these girls. She didn’t realize there was no other 15-year-old in the world who could get as close to beating them.”

There was no plan for Oleksiak to storm the Olympics. She had been earmarked for 2020 by the data crunchers at Swimming Canada. But in April 2016, at trials, she hit qualifying times that landed her on the team. As Oleksiak won medal after medal in Rio, Titley instructed her to limit her phone use so as to insulate her from the explosion of excitement happening at home. “Her reality became: ‘Every time I dive in, I win a medal.’ It gave her momentum,” said Titley. So the team moved quietly from race to race, never celebrating or really registering the scope of the achievement until the eight days were over.

Oleksiak flew home before the closing ceremonies. She went to Canada’s Wonderland and found it odd that people kept approaching her. Her parents had said they’d buy her a dog after the Olympics, and this promise was top of mind. Due to a lack of puppies at the shelter, she got a kitten instead—all black. She named it Rio.

The family that Rio joined lives in a modest house in the Beaches filled with books and art. The Oleksiaks possess a deep work ethic, but stardom seems to have taken Penny’s parents by surprise—a breach of the familial bubble. The family is, above all, very tight. On her back, Penny has a tattoo of the coordinates of the family home. When she has a speech to make, often her dad writes the first draft and Penny tweaks it. Richard Oleksiak was raised in Buffalo and attended Nichols prep school, where he excelled in track, basketball and football, then lettered in track at Colgate University. Alison is from Troon, Scotland. She describes herself as coming from an athletic family and reportedly swam competitively in her youth. She’s the family’s master scheduler, and Richard does the cooking and a lot of the driving, because he usually works from home. Penny’s sister, Hayley, puts it this way: “Mom is the analytical, organized one. Dad is the artist.”

Richard and Alison had three children, overachievers all: Jamie, seven years older than Penny, is a six-foot-seven defenceman for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Hayley, six years older, rowed at Northeastern in Boston. Richard has two kids from a previous marriage, one of whom played NCAA hockey.

Birth order might explain Oleksiak’s propensity to chase: the youngest tends to try to keep up, even to pass. Hayley remembers her little sister trying to outrun and outswim her when Penny was a toddler. But all the Oleksiaks are competitive. Board games are rarely played, because somebody usually ends up crying.

These days, with Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” rule in pocket, many parents push their kids hard, hoping for a future of, say, Olympic appearances and NCAA scholarships—routine occurrences in the Oleksiak family. But the Oleksiaks never went the single-sport, early-streaming route. Even as she got pulled into the swim world, Penny kept up with soccer, volleyball and dance (competitive dance, naturally) until she was 14.

In the fall, I met her parents at an east-end pub. “An athlete is just one slice of a whole person. If the whole person isn’t happy, then the athlete part isn’t going to develop,” said Richard. “We didn’t care whether our kids did dance, swimming, music, photography—we just wanted them to find something they were passionate about,” said Alison.

Well, that’s nice, but Jamie isn’t some struggling photographer; he plays with Sidney Crosby. So surely there’s some whip-cracking, Russian gymnastics coach–type parenting in the shadows? “My parents are amazing,” Penny said later. “They invested so much time, so much money, so much effort into all of our careers, but they’re not stage parents. If I wanted to quit swimming today and take up drawing, my parents would be like, ‘One hundred per cent. If that’s what you want to do, we will do it.’ ”

SEPTEMBER 2018: Onstage at We Day

Well, that’s nice, too, but how? How can there be so many top-tier athletes in one family? At the pub, Richard, who shares Penny’s reserve, asked if I’d read a book called The Sports Gene by David Epstein. Nope. He summed it up: a cellular-level predisposition to hit a ball, swim faster or dunk is useful, but it’s meaningless unless the athlete possesses a deep will to win and the drive to do the work. “Talent plus energy equals success,” said Richard, eating a Buddha bowl. He had recently switched to a vegan diet to “experiment with discipline.”

The Oleksiak family did their best to ease Penny into her new reality after the Olympics, but there was no template. Swimming Canada doesn’t offer a boot camp for stardom. The last big Canadian swim celebrity was Mark Tewksbury, who double-medalled at Barcelona in 1992—in a much gentler, pre-digital media era—and was 24 at the time. Penny’s parents were feeling their way in the dark, trying to manage a kid who wanted to revel in her hard-earned moment and say yes to every invitation while still getting up at 5:30 a.m. for training and ducking out between events at meets to finish her homework.

Eventually, Oleksiak realized something needed to change. In the fall of 2017, she made a major move and left Ben Titley, the national team coach who had taken her to the Olympics. She rejoined Bill O’Toole at the U of T pool. From the outside, it looked like a return to the womb: the Toronto Swim Club had known her when she was young, and she had a goofy, cozy repartee with O’Toole.

At the same time, Oleksiak transferred from Monarch Park to finish Grade 11 at the Blyth Academy, a private school in Yorkville. The proximity of school to pool meant she’d practise at 7 a.m., walk a few blocks to class and return for afternoon practice; no more paternal ferrying to Scarborough. Oleksiak wasn’t happy about splitting from her friends, but she’d missed so much school that a lot of them had already graduated anyway. At the U of T pool, there was a level of anonymity that Oleksiak didn’t have when practising with the national team. While she swam, university students sat up in the bleachers eating and typing on their laptops, oblivious to who she was.

Last February, I watched her practise there. The young swimmers of the club were lined up at the diving boards. On the deck above Oleksiak’s lane, O’Toole stood holding one end of a resistance cord that was attached to her waist. Oleksiak would swim out fast, and he would reel her back in like a fish, an exercise designed to teach her to make minute corrections to her positioning. A TV crew was there to interview her about the upcoming Commonwealth Games.

Oleksiak told me she liked being back with her old team. “I’m just trying to remember what it was like before, how fun it was to swim.”

But at the Commonwealth Games, two months later on Australia’s Gold Coast, she won two silvers in the relay and didn’t medal in any individual events. In the 100-metre freestyle, the race that had brought her gold at the Olympics, she finished fifth. The big story of those games quickly became a Canadian teen named Taylor Ruck, who had also been 16 years old in Rio and on the medal-winning relay team with Oleksiak. In Australia, Ruck tied the record for most medals won at the Commonwealth Games, with eight. Oleksiak’s grandmother, Richard’s mother, had died a few days before the race. “Mourning Penny falters,” read one headline. Another outlet speculated that perhaps a year-old concussion from a medicine ball workout was to blame. Asked about all this conjecture, Oleksiak told me, “People try to make excuses for you, but sometimes it’s just—no, I’m not in the right state right now.”

Byron McDonald, U of T coach, former Olympian and Canada’s veteran swimming broadcaster with the CBC, wasn’t surprised by the slower times. “In essence, what happened to Penny after the Olympics—nobody was really the gatekeeper,” he told me. “There was no playbook. Mistakes were made in terms of time, over-commitment to sponsorships, appearances and schoolwork. She was so exhausted. If you’re not going to get the recovery, you won’t do well the next day in training. I think she wasn’t able to keep doing what she had done in the past, and if you don’t, then guess what? You don’t go as fast.”

Weeks after the Commonwealth Games, Penny was the star guest at the launch of an ASICS store on Queen West. A couple of days later, she was inducted into the Toronto Sport Hall of Honour. Out of the pool, she looked entirely different than the shiny superhuman figure of the Olympics. Her long hair was curled Insta-worthily over the shoulders of her black leather jacket. With her full mouth and sleepy eyes, she bore a striking resemblance to the actress Liv Tyler. But the veneer of the glamorous adult was broken when I later asked her, “What’s your favourite subject?” and elicited a kind of free-floating, very teenage uncertainty. “I like math, because it’s hard. But I also like English. Chemistry. I’m into poetry. I don’t even know. I’m confused for university.”

Oleksiak’s parents and her sister were with her. At one point, I looked over, and their four heads were bowed together in a football huddle, like a physical approximation of the protective shield they are. It’s Alison who is always reminding Penny that the drug test people can—and do—show up on the doorstep anytime to watch her pee, so she shouldn’t use a charcoal face mask or drink anything with ginger in it, just in case it reads as a banned substance. Alison, especially, gets upset over negative press around any Oleksiak (everyone tells her not to look—but she looks).

To help with the crush of media requests, the family hired a PR agency. On the occasions when Penny and I were able to meet, a friendly publicist named Erin was always hovering. As phones clicked and a TV crew circled, I asked Richard what he made of this event. “Distraction,” he said.

Penny and I were scheduled to meet soon after the event, in April, but suddenly she was flying out to attend a training camp in Gainesville, Florida, alongside Ryan Lochte and Caeleb Dressel, a 22-year-old Olympian now labelled the fastest swimmer in the world. The presence of these stars was essential. “Penny’s a greyhound,” said her dad. “She needs a bunny to chase.”

No one knew when she’d be back from Florida. Leaving Toronto seemed like an effort to deliver her back to the elements: the water, the chase. “I get very nostalgic to go back to where we were,” Richard said, referencing the months leading up to Rio. “You can’t eliminate everything that’s happened from then to now. But how do you replicate that kind of atmosphere so that she can perform well? That’s where we are now.”

In Gainesville, she lived in a little apartment, noticing gators in the swamps. She liked being around Dressel and Lochte (yes, she tried to catch them in training; no, she didn’t), watching them closely to understand how highly disciplined athletes can switch from silly to laser-focused in a split second. Dressel doesn’t do a lot of social media or have Instagram on his phone, and this inspired Oleksiak to turn her notifications off. “I learned there’s no point in having social media right now. If it’s just going to mean people scrutinizing you all the time and watching you, what’s the point?”

After a couple of months, she returned home to Toronto. Her mom thought Penny was looking tired and stressed—Penny’s last real vacation was in 2014—and suggested she pull out of the Pan-Pacifics in Tokyo in August. Oleksiak solicited should-I-or-shouldn’t-I advice from people she trusted. She called representatives at Swimming Canada and surveyed her friends. “I was thinking about it, and I was like, ‘Why do I feel like I have to do all this stuff all the time?’ ” she said. Oleksiak had begun to see a sports psychologist for the first time and checked in with her, too.

SEPTEMBER 2018: With her puggle, Franklin

The importance of the mental component in sports is well known by now, so I was surprised to hear that she came late to it. “I don’t think I realized how big of a piece it is until recently,” said Oleksiak. (Cate Campbell, the Australian swimmer who was pegged to win the Gold that Penny took in Rio, received a cheerful “I’ve booked out a boardroom in the office so we can all watch you!” text message right before the race, which she claims frayed her mentally and cost her the medal.) But then again, with her inborn drive and place in a family of outliers, Oleksiak’s mental strength was just another norm until now, a given.

Oleksiak has a small but tight circle of friends that got smaller and tighter after the Olympics when, all of a sudden, a lot of people wanted to know her. (She still receives regular DMs asking for prom dates.) After listening to feedback from her confidantes, in July, Oleksiak put the brakes on. It became headline news in the sports pages. She retreated from press requests, became scarce on social media and scaled back her training.

She spent her summer doing teen things, like hitting the Boots and Hearts country festival near Orillia and the Drake and Migos show downtown. Her good friend Crystal Luga said that she wanted Oleksiak to use her name to get backstage, but she wouldn’t do it. (ASICS helped them get good seats, though.) To Luga, Oleksiak is just her introverted, loyal, funny friend, whose biggest achievement, Olympics be damned, is her ability to perfectly recite the lyrics to Migos songs and fit more M&Ms in her mouth than anyone on the planet. For Oleksiak’s 18th birthday, she went to a cottage with some friends. She passed her driver’s test and bought herself a car. She swam a couple of times a week at her local public pool, just to make sure she didn’t lose her feel for the water. Her Instagram showed her in a bikini on a beach in St. Lucia (#vichy, a sunscreen that sponsors her—so maybe the work never fully stops). It was no longer clear what swim club she was affiliated with, and when we tried to meet up, her publicist said that she wasn’t even in Toronto. The curtains had been drawn; a grand gesture of self-preservation was underway.

AUGUST 2018: At the Boots and Hearts country festival near Orillia

In August, we sat down at Soho House for breakfast. Oleksiak seemed lighter and less guarded than when we’d talked several months earlier. She told me that she needed time to chill out, to escape from the spotlight.

“It’s weird growing up and having to deal with all this stuff with swimming and then also all my normal teenager problems,” she said, not eating her avocado toast. “I have this other side of me where I’m a swimmer and I have to act professional all the time. It’s weird growing up with all of this going on.”

Of the myriad changes that afflict the young, the bodily ones can be the most jarring, yet Penny’s large frame is also the source of her immense talent. She has struggled with hating her body—the height and triangular shape of broad shoulders, thin hips. But at the pool, she will make herself as big as possible to intimidate other swimmers on the blocks. “In my swimming life I’m like, ‘Yeah, I have bigger arms and bigger legs than everyone, and I look ripped! I love it!’ Then at school, I’ll hide my arms because I don’t want to look so big. I’ll try to slouch down,” she said. That divide is something she’s been closing. “I realize I need this body to do what I want to do. I’ve come to terms with it pretty recently. I really like my body, and I like what I’m doing, and I like how swimming shaped me as a person.” She talked about the young girls who tell her that they’re trying swimming because of her or feeling better about being so tall. She loves that.

Oleksiak said that the break from competitive swimming was just temporary. She was working through options on where to land in the fall: which club, which coach, which city—all of it undecided. I asked what she’d be doing if none of this—the fame, the pressure—had happened. “I have no clue,” she said. “I’ve just pushed that to the back of my mind. It’s something I don’t need to think about because the more I think about that, the more I’m going to be like, ‘How could my life be different? Could my life be better?’ ”

I switched it around and asked her to look forward, wondering what things would be like for her in a decade. Swimming isn’t hockey; yes, she has endorsements, but there’s rarely a multimillion-dollar payday for swimmers.

“It freaks me out when I think, How many more years do I have in my career? Ryan Lochte is 34 and still going. That’s a crazy amount of time for me. But if I just keep getting better and loving what I’m doing, I definitely would want that. I can see myself doing this till I’m like 33, 34,” she said, finally taking a bite of the toast. “As long as I keep loving it.”

Following our Soho House breakfast, Oleksiak was headed to the Rogers Cup, where Denis Shapovalov was playing. They had been photographed together, and gossip about a teen romance ensued, probably because the idea fulfills some deeply held Gattaca-esque wish for a merger of physically superior humans. “We’re just friends. That was weird because at the time I did have a boyfriend.” She isn’t with that boyfriend now; he’s off at university like a lot of her friends. Oleksiak still has a few courses to take before finishing Grade 12.

AUGUST 2017: Contrary to rumours, Penny and Denis Shapovalov were never more than friends

A few weeks later, Oleksiak met with Titley, the coach who had brought her to the Olympics. She had looked at the calendar, seen that the Olympics were only two years away and made the decision to return to the place that had helped her break through in her sport. “I wanted to go somewhere that I know works for me. Ben knows me better than anyone. He holds me accountable.” She told him she wanted to be the best; he said he could get her there. All he required was total commitment.

On a dark October morning, 10 months after we first met, I drove out to the Pan Am pool in Scarborough. At 7 a.m., a few wet-haired, banana-eating kids were milling in the lobby, carrying fins in mesh bags, awaiting pick-up. The Pan Am Centre is high-ceilinged and sleek, with three pools, multiple gyms and a faintly chemical scent. For swimmers, it’s the most sophisticated venue in Canada, with state-of-the-art tools for data collection, video playback for performance analysis, massage and physiotherapists waiting in the wings, and one of the fastest pools in the country.

The morning I visited, Oleksiak’s training meant moving between dry land and water workouts, four of each, for two and a half hours. In a windowless back room, on a set of yellow judo mats left over from the Pan Am games, she worked out among a handful of national team swimmers, male and female, doing squats and dead lifts under the eyes of two trainers. Gangster rap blasted (Oleksiak’s choice).

By the pool, Titley was getting the short course ready. Oleksiak describes him as tough, and he does wield a dry British sense of humour. He reamed me out (jokingly, I think) for being late and mentioned that swimmers who are late don’t swim.

When Oleksiak was at the Olympics in 2016, she had the nobody advantage: no expectations, no pressure, nobody watching. Titley’s challenge is to make her feel that way again—to erase, in effect, two years of noise and bring her back to the silence.

“Penny the person is a really nice girl, but Penny the athlete needed to decide what’s important to her,” he said. “I told her, ‘You can’t be normal in all areas. You probably won’t able to go out and party and do what your friends do on a Saturday night. If you want to be exceptional in one area, you have to give up something else in another.’ ” Coaching is repetition, said Titley, and the plan is to get back to basics, starting with training twice a day, six days a week.

Of her time in the wilderness, Titley was nonplussed, noting, “Whilst it’s fabulous that she’s taken time to become more at peace with herself in society and sport and popular culture, with the greatest respect, the rest of the world does not care. The people she’s lined up with don’t care. They laugh at it. They say, ‘That’s nice, but while you’ve been doing that, I’ve been getting better.’ She needs to get better at a faster rate than all her rivals in the world.”

But of course, she will never again be new, without pressure, unacquainted with failure. She will never get back to the time before—which is really the state of adulthood, this casting backward, longingly.

The swimmers moved to the edge of the pool, where Oleksiak was giggling and chatting with teammate Kayla Sanchez. Oleksiak was pulling faces like a kid. Sanchez slapped her butt, and Oleksiak pushed her in the pool, laughing.


This story originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.