Having been through 'hell and back,' Penny Oleksiak returns to pool with full focus on Olympics

Canada's Penny Oleksiak is back at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre this week competing in the inaugural Canadian Open. She’ll compete in the 100m and 200m freestyle events, a chance to see where she’s at with less than five weeks until Olympic trials. 

Canada's most decorated Olympian feeling healthy at inaugural Canadian Open meet

A swimmer stands with one hand on her hips.
Canada's Penny Oleksiak, seen above at Tokyo 2020, is returning to competition at the Canadian Open, where she says she feels healthy and happy to be swimming after bouts of injury and depression. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images)

Penny Oleksiak is still trying to wrap her mind around all of this — that after more than a decade of competing at the highest level in swimming, she's still at it. 

She certainly didn't imagine this for herself in the early days.

Despite what she calls being through "hell and back" — after all of the golden moments while becoming Canada's most decorated Olympian and crushing depression that marred some of her recent years as a swimmer — she's fallen in love with her sport all over again. 

"I'm at a really, really good place in my life and I'm happy with what I'm doing. I'm finally swimming because I want to swim. It's a choice I'm making to go to the pool. I don't feel like I have to be there or that I'm going to let people down if I don't go," she told CBC Sports.

Standing on the pool deck of the place she calls home, Oleksiak is back at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre this week competing in the inaugural Canadian Open. She'll compete in the 100- and 200-metre freestyle events, a chance to see where she's at with less than five weeks until Olympic trials. 

And also a chance to test her knee. During an interview with CBC Sports on Tuesday, Oleksiak revealed she had another surgery just three months ago after hurting it at the U.S. Open Swimming Championship in North Carolina in November.

"When I went to the Greensboro meet and I tore my knee at that meet I was so overwhelmed," Oleksiak said. "I had to get knee surgery three months ago."

Now though, Oleksiak says she's feeling healthy and happy with how her knee is recovering, and ready to compete back home at the Pan Am Sports Centre.

A swimmer glides through the water.
Oleksiak says she fallen in love with swimming again. (Francois-Xavier Marit/AFP via Getty Images)

'I have a lot more time to swim'

It's here that Oleksiak earned spots at her first and second Olympics. 

It's this place that Oleksiak has spent countless hours becoming an Olympic champion. But it's also here where she questioned her future in the sport, sometimes showing up for training and wondering why she was still swimming. 

"I've been here since it opened. A lot of good memories, crazy memories. This was my first home for the longest time," Oleksiak said. 

"When I was 16 years old I remember swearing up and down that I was going to [be] done swimming when I was 24. These Olympics in Paris were going to be my last Olympics. I was freaking out about it and now that I'm here I'm like, I have a lot more time to swim."

Oleksiak, 23, not only wants to make it to her third Games this summer and play a key role on Canada's relay teams, she wants to go another Olympic cycle and compete at Los Angeles 2028.

"I want to be better for the girls on the relays. I want to be better for the guys on the mixed relays. I just want to be better as an athlete and as a person," Oleksiak said. 

It's a completely different future she's envisioning for herself now compared to those dark, injury-filled and anxious days she's experienced since catapulting to swimming stardom at the Rio Olympics in 2016 where she won four medals. She won three more in Tokyo. 

"It feels like I'm making my own decisions for once," she said.

"I'm really happy with where I'm at right now and what I'm trying to do is going to be transcending the sport. Right now I'm content with where I'm at with my life and what I've accomplished and what I want to do in the future. I want to go to the Olympics and have a long career."

Four swimmer smiles while holding silver medals.
Oleksiak, right, celebrates a relay silver medal with Canadian teammates at the Tokyo Olympics. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Training changes

Last fall, Oleksiak made the decision to take her training south of the border, leaving behind the familiarity of Toronto and joining the Mission Viejo pro group based out of the MVN 360 Performance Centre, about 80 kilometres southeast of Los Angeles.

She says the training there is very different from what she's used to, but Oleksiak has quickly taken to the new plan and is enjoying success with it. 

"It's terrifying being away from home because I feel like Toronto was my home and I felt safe here. Now I feel like I'm out in the open ocean in California. But I'm learning so much and having new experiences every day and it makes life really interesting," Oleksiak said.

The biggest difference is that Oleksiak is swimming fewer metres per training session compared to what she was doing in Toronto. It's made her hyper-focused on every practice these days with just five months to go until the Olympics. 

"It's been relearning how to train and the different ways to do weights," Oleksiak said.

"We don't do as many metres as I used to do. It's reframing that mindset. Every day I need to focus from the jump."

These past couple of years have been difficult to navigate. She's been frustrated by injuries that have torn apart any serious training blocks she's wanted to do. 

It's still a work in progress. But all of this is nothing new to Oleksiak. 

There were doubters ahead of the last Olympic trials and then she posted some of the fastest times of her career. And there may be some who are doubting her again, but none of it phases Oleksiak, who is taking this all in stride back home in Toronto this week.

"See where I'm at. No pressure. I'm really heavy into training right now and focusing on trials and making the team," Oleksiak said, calmly. 

"There's definitely that inner voice telling me I'm going to be OK and things are going to be fine and that my muscle memory is going to kick in when it needs to. I also know I can't be too cocky about things as well."


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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