Olympic champion Oleksiak skips Pan Pacs to focus on Tokyo

The darling of Swim Canada is taking a much deserved break

Penny Oleksiak, the 18-year-old Canadian swim prodigy who took four medals at Rio 2016, has decided to withdraw from the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships next month to focus on the Tokyo 2020 Games. She won two events in the national qualifiers.

The Pan Pacs are a quadrennial competition between 18 nations, most of which border the Pacific Ocean. This year's will be held in Tokyo, Japan from August 9-14.

Oleksiak clinched both the 100 metre freestyle and 100 metre butterfly at the recent trials in Edmonton. She also placed third in the 200 metre freestyle.

But after a hectic year of media engagements, charity events, and changes to her training routine, Oleksiak and Swimming Canada decided it would be best to take a break before concentrating all her efforts on the Tokyo Games.

Penny Oleksiak Simone Manuel Sarah Sjostrom
Penny Oleksiak Simone Manuel Sarah SjostromPenny Oleksiak Simone Manuel Sarah Sjostrom

“The intent is for her to return to training in September so she starts the final two years of the quad refreshed and ready to do the best she can representing herself and Canada,” said Swimming Canada high performance director John Atkinson.

"Penny has accomplished more at her age than any young swimmer in Canadian history and it’s been a very busy two years since Rio," said Atkinson. "She is a young woman with incredible potential as we look ahead to the two-year push towards Tokyo."

Oleksiak isn’t the first swimmer to use this strategy. Brittany MacLean opted out of the 2015 world championships and went on to win a bronze medal in the Rio 2016 200 metre relay.

Olympic medallist Katerine Savard will also be taking the summer off.

Canada’s Sweetheart

When 16-year-old Oleksiak left home to compete in the Rio Olympic Games, she was virtually unknown.

A few weeks later, she was Canada’s youngest ever Olympic champion and the darling of the Canadian press. Hailed as “Canada’s lucky Penny,” the gangly, giggly teenager had won four Olympic medals along with the nation’s heart.

“My phone in Rio actually broke a few times because it just kept getting way too many notifications and way too many messages.” – Penny Oleksiak, in an interview with Maclean’s magazine

She found herself in the spotlight again as Canada’s flagbearer for the closing ceremonies. And it didn’t stop there.

Months after the Games, she received the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year.

Oleksyak also threw the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game, she met Chance the Rapper and got invited to a Drake concert...by Drake.

Heart of gold

In the midst of her busy life as a high school student and professional swimmer, Oleksiak still finds time to help others.

Last year, she and her family took a two-week trip to Kenya with Me to We, a Canadian charity. There she helped build a girls' dormitory, but also took some time to make new friends. At an all-girls secondary school in Kisaruni, she played sports and learned dance moves from girls her own age.

And of course, she kissed a giraffe. Because why not?

On her 18th birthday, she spent the day coaching Special Olympics swimmers.

Even her social media pages are a tool for good. With almost 94k followers on Instagram, her influence is substantial.

“I’m just trying to inspire kids,” she said. “Even if that’s just making an Instagram post about what I’m working towards or saying ‘I’m getting to the pool’ in a Tweet. I’m trying to do little things to help inspire kids to get more physically active.”

Even though she’s still growing up herself, Oleksiak has quickly become role model for kids across Canada. It’s a responsibility she takes very seriously.

“I want to be there for kids to relate to and be there for kids to look up to and that can be my legacy,”– Penny Oleksiak at TEDxToronto.

Olympic Expectations

Her performance in Rio made her famous—and with fame comes the burden of high expectations.

“Before the Olympics I had no expectations, no pressure, and that’s what helped me I guess – making light of everything,” she told Best Health Magazine.

Oleksiak dealt with a shoulder issue as well as a concussion last year. In last year's world championships in Budapest, she failed to make the podium in an individual event.

While she’s typically a laidback, fun-loving teen in her everyday life, she’s a perfectionist in the pool. Winning isn’t as satisfying as being her absolute best.

“My main thing is as long as I know I can fix something or try and make it better, that’s my motivation – to try and get better. After every race I’m very hard on myself, just knowing that I can always get better.” – Penny Oleksiak

Nevertheless, the Olympian said she’s learning to take things in stride.

"I always tell myself to have fun and not take it too seriously because at the end of the day I’m going to put 100 percent into it every race I do."

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