Penny Oleksiak on Shark Week, Travel Rituals and Gearing up for Tokyo

Penny Oleksiak, the teenage swimmer who captured Canada’s heart when she won gold, silver and two bronze medals at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, has just admitted that she’s afraid of the water. Open water, that is. “It’s sharks. I would watch Shark Week with my siblings, and now it’s ingrained in my mind,” she says from her training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, only minutes from the beach. “You’ll never find me in the ocean.” Not that she has much time for frolicking in the Atlantic these days. The 19-year-old is busy preparing for the 2020 Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Swimming Trials, taking place at the end of March at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre (her home pool), which will determine the athletes heading to Tokyo this July. We spoke with Oleksiak at the end of a training day about Olympic Games expectations, food, travel and new famous friends.
 

enRoute What is your goal, mindset-wise, with the Olympic Games coming up this summer?
 

Penny Oleksiak To be where I was before Rio. I was really excited to go and was just having fun with everything. I’m trying to get back into that mindset of loving what I’m doing and doing it for fun.
 

ER What gets you through all the training?
 

PO We are such a close-knit team, especially the girls. The five of us know that when we’re in Florida, we have to be there for each other because the training is difficult and it can get you down. But just knowing that I have all these girls here helps a lot.

February 25, 2020
Penny Oleksiak dressed in gym clothes at an indoor pool
   Hair & Makeup: Taylor Chousky (Plutino Group)

ER In the past, you’ve said that you don’t want to let Canada down. Is that still on your mind?
 

PO It doesn’t affect me as much anymore. After the Rio Olympic Games and all through 2017, it was always on my mind, but I’ve done a lot of mental work and learned how to empower myself and be more excited about what I’m doing. Now, I’m more confident and I don’t put as much pressure on myself.
 

ER What kind of mental work have you done?
 

PO I’ve read a few books about learning how to control things that you can, and let go of things that you can’t. I’ve talked with a lot of different athletes, and almost everyone I meet struggles with that. I’ve also talked with psychiatrists and therapists just to figure out how to move forward.

Penny Oleksiak stretching in her swimsuit
An animated gif of Penny Oleksiak putting on her swim cap
Penny Oleksiak in her swimsuit, fully extending her arms above her head

“I’m more confident now, and I don’t put as much pressure on myself.”

ER Speaking of other athletes, you recently attended a Raptors game with tennis star Bianca Andreescu. How did that come about?
 

PO I sent her a congratulations message after she won the U.S. Open. And she messaged me, asking how I was. I told her if she ever needed someone her age to talk to or to relate to, I could be there. And we settled on going to a Raptors game. After that we were hanging out at my apartment almost every night – just watching TV, playing with my dog, Norman, and talking about life and everything going on. We’re very much friends, more than just fellow athletes.
 

ER What do you do in your downtime?
 

PO After the pool, I’ll usually have another training session with weights, so there’s not much downtime. If there is, I’ll walk Norman or nap or cook.

Penny Oleksiak standing with her hands in the kangaroo pockets of her fitness sweater
Penny Oleksiak adjusting her ponytail

ER Do you like cooking? Could you host a dinner party?
 

PO I could host a couple of people, but a dinner party would get me a little stressed out. I would probably make guacamole and chips, maybe some garlic bread and a casserole.
 

ER Where do you train in Toronto?
 

PO My extra training sessions are at Tidal CrossFit Danforth. It’s near my old high school and I’ve been with a trainer there since I was 12. I try to do a SoulCycle class on Sundays, because spin helps build endurance. And I swim at the Pan Am Sports Centre.
 

ER Do you have any travel rituals?
 

PO I get my dad socks pretty much everywhere I go. I bought him his favourite pair, which have blue and yellow stripes, in Switzerland. I go into any store that looks like it might have wacky socks, or you can usually find some at the airport.

Penny Oleksiak stretches her left arm in her workout clothes

ER Will you explore Tokyo if you’re there this summer?
 

PO I’m thinking about staying afterwards with my sister. She’s in urban planning and wants to look at all the buildings and see how the city’s laid out. But my mom wants to go to Hawaii, and that would be a nice trip after Tokyo as well.
 

ER Did you do anything at the last Olympic Games that you would like to repeat?
 

PO Oh, I have to go to the free McDonald’s in the Village. I went last time and got chicken nuggets and a milkshake – I love indulging after I swim well.

Penny Oleksiak smiles in her bathing suit

The Questionnaire

  • Carry-on essentials I pack an eye mask, blanket, little pillow, compression socks and essential oil for sleeping on flights.

  • Travel hack Always bring a portable wireless charger – I use the one built into my Away suitcase.

  • Dream seatmate I just want to sleep, so someone who’s quiet.

  • First travel memory It was a road trip with my family to the 2011 NHL draft in St. Paul, Minnesota [her brother, Dallas Stars defenceman Jamie Oleksiak, was picked 14th overall].

  • Travel has the power to… Bring us together and make us happy.

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