Just one national news outlet was prescient enough to include Penny Oleksiak in a long list of Canadians to watch in Rio. They ran her bio next to a picture of a different swimmer.
She won her first medal late on a Saturday evening – a team bronze in freestyle relay. A couple of hours earlier, she’d qualified for the final in butterfly.
“I didn’t expect that,” Oleksiak said, speaking for country.
She won silver on Sunday. Another bronze on Tuesday. On Thursday, she won gold in the sport’s marquee event, the 100-metre freestyle.
She set an Olympic record that night, both for performance and stunned looks of disbelief. Oleksiak spent most of the medal ceremony in a fog of gawky teenage bewilderment – she didn’t know when to get up on the podium, or who to hug, or that you’re supposed to bite down on gold as they take your photo.
How out-of-nowhere was all of this? Oleksiak’s co-gold medalist, American Simone Manuel, was asked about her at the champions’ news conference. “I just met Penny. Like, today,” she said.
Ten days later, Oleksiak carried the flag. A month later, she started Grade 11. On Tuesday, she was named winner of the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s top athlete as voted by a panel of journalists.
What have you done this year?
These days, there isn’t much we don’t see coming from a long way off. Oleksiak is a glorious exception. She appeared at the centre of our national conversation as if she’d been teleported there. Every bit as much as her performance – the finest ever by a Canadian at a Summer Games – that’s what separated her from the pack.
Brooke Henderson had a great season. So did Milos Raonic and Andre De Grasse. Sidney Crosby may have had the most accomplished calendar year in professional hockey history, but his long run of excellence tends to weigh against him. No matter how good a thing is, it begins to seem tired after a while. Crosby, a two-time winner of the Lou Marsh, finished second this time around.
(In victory, Oleksiak had some gracious words for the man she’d bested: “I remember at book fairs I used to buy posters of him … because he’s super-cool.”)
Some people will consider that one-two result unjust and go on about competitive depths of field, the daily grind of pro sport versus amateur or the general pressure, but at the most basic level, comparing athletes between sports is a mug’s game.
Most people would probably agree that Usain Bolt is the greatest athlete alive. But how much can he bench press? And what sort of jumper is he? Like, up onto a kitchen table or up onto a bookshelf? How often does he run? Against whom?
Everyone has an opinion about this stuff, but no one knows. We’re all guessing.
So when you say, ‘Best Athlete of the Year,’ what you really mean is ‘Best Story of the Year.’
Oleksiak wins that race by some distance. Most non-obsessives are a little run down by the constant deluge of Big! Sports! Things! It’d be nice if something didn’t seem so big for once, at least not in the lead-up.
Oleksiak was the cure for that problem. She arrived with no expectations (the rare sporting instance in which that term is used literally rather than metaphorically).
Once she’d gotten big, she managed to stay small. It isn’t quite bashfulness. It’s something more like an impenetrable cloak of normalcy.
We would like to believe that most top athletes are quite normal. They aren’t. Most of them are incredibly abnormal, usually in ways that make normal people feel terrible about themselves. But – swimming like a porpoise aside – Oleksiak was and is like the rest of us. That’s her magic.
On Tuesday, she kept tabs on Twitter to see if she’d won the Lou Marsh while sitting in law class at Toronto’s Monarch Park Collegiate.
“The first thing I told my teacher was that I would be on my phone during class. She called me out a few times to search something on Google.”
The 16-year-old took her win in stride. Apparently, Mr. McAlpine (whoever that is) from across the hall did not.
“He was freaking out,” Oleksiak said.
Asked again and again to sum up her year, she showed no interest in talking up it or herself. You could hear papers shuffling as she went through her thank-you list. Once finished with that, she lost interest. She was asked if she had any sponsorship deals in play. She didn’t know and made clear that she doesn’t care.
She gets up in the morning, swims and lifts weights. She goes to school. She swims and lifts weights again. And then she goes home.
“I do homework sometimes. Depending on if I’m tired. Or not.”
How was she going to celebrate becoming the first female swimmer to be named the country’s top athlete in a half-century?
“I don’t have many plans to celebrate,” she said glumly. “I have a test tomorrow. If I’m lucky, I’ll have some cake at dinner.”
There was some furious whispering out of earshot on the conference line.
“I’m trying to convince my mom as we speak.”
Every year, we get the athletes we deserve. Sometimes a few less, sometimes more. But we don’t always get the athletes we need.
Going into Rio, Canada needed a win. Not a bunch of golds, necessarily. But a reminder that we could be good at this thing – the event that is the great rallying point of our common culture – when it isn’t played on ice.
Along with a few others, Oleksiak did that. She stood out not just because of the number and height of her podiums, but because we hadn’t spent years obsessing about her doing it. Once she managed it, she was effortlessly cool about the whole thing. It reminded the rest of us that we could feel that way as well.
Without ever once bragging, Oleksiak – a 16-year-old kid – squared the circle of Canada’s Olympic inferiority complex.
“I really don’t have expectations of myself,” Oleksiak said, speaking of her goals.
Maybe we should all try that. It seems to work.