Canadian swimmers did more than win Olympic medals, they inspired young athletes — call it a ripple effect.
Canadian women captured all six of the country’s swimming medals to put the county in seventh place in the pool. Swimming star Penny Oleksiak, 16, of Toronto, became a regular on the podium after winning a gold medal in women’s 100-metre freestyle, a silver in women’s 100-metre butterfly, and bronze medals in both the women’s 100 and 200-metre freestyle relays.
Oleksiak broke Canada’s Summer Olympic record for the most medals won by a single athlete, and was the youngest Canadian to ever win gold.
Madison Kohut, 13, of Lacombe, was one of the local swimmers blown away by Oleksiak’s Olympic success.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s just so — wow,” said Kohut, a member of the summer swim club the Red Deer Marlins.
Oleksiak also made an impression on Jack Walton, 13, of Red Deer.
“That’s only three years older than me and she’s racing against the best people in the world. That’s crazy,” said Walton, also with the Marlins.
Amanda Halford, Marlins president, said interest in swimming ebbs and flows. It’s generally at its lowest the summer leading into the Olympics, then it explodes.
“We will balloon by about 20 per cent next year because of the Olympics,” Halford said.
Right now the club has 93 swimmers, age five to 17.
She said watching how the Canadian women’s bronze-winning relay team pulled together means a lot to local swimmers who are such a close-knit group.
“It’s about swimming for each other. Everyone thinks swimming is an individual sport. That just proves that it’s not.”
She said even if Canada had not done well, club members would still have been focused on the Olympics.
“They’re just always in awe of what actually comes out of the pool and the actual competition.
“Watching Michael Phelps come back at age 31, Penny Oleksiak doing what she was doing at age 16, it seems like an ageless sport and I think that encourages them too,” Halford said.
Marlins head coach Sarah Broen said the Canadian women’s team showed the world they came to play and the Marlins were watching, and even texted Broen about the races and asked her why the athletes did this or that.
“Lots of them were super inspired that big things can happen. The older kids see the bigger picture and where it could go,” Broen said.
Broen, 21, who has trained with Rachel Nicol who competed in the breaststroke for Canada, said Nicol’s achievement at the Olympics put her in fifth place in the world, up from 11th.
Broen was able to speak to Nicol from Rio after her semi-final and final competitions about her strategy to go for broke.
“She said if you have a lane, than you have a chance. She said she went out every single time like she wasn’t going to get another one. It was awesome,” Broen said.
Mandi Smith, head coach of Red Deer Catalina Swim Club, said interest in her club climbed after the last two Olympics and she expects it will again.
The year-round swim club has 100 competitive swimmers and 20 pre-competitive who range in age from five years old to about 22.
She said the club has grown in recent years by focusing on supporting the athlete as a whole, not just as a swimmer.
“Red Deer has seen some great successes. We’ve had kids on junior teams. We’ve had kids on senior teams, and we’ve had provincial and national and international champions. The more people see how good Red Deer kids can be, the more there is an interest,” Smith said.
But she said the swimming facilities in Red Deer does limit how many swimmers can join Catalina.
For several years there has been a push to get the city to construct a 50-metre pool. Without it, Red Deer cannot host competitions and swimmers must spend some of their time practicing in other communities.
A new aquatic multi-use centre is listed among capital projects the city has planned. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2020 and finish in 2022.
Brian Gallaway, chair of Central Alberta Aquatics Centre championing the new pool, said watching Canada’s Olympic performance brought Red Deer’s lack of a competition-sized pool to mind.
“Seeing the pools on TV, it’s something we wish we could have here,” Gallaway said.
The aquatic multi-use centre was estimated to cost $74.6-million in 2014 and was projected to grow to $95.5 million in 2018.
He said building sooner rather than later will save money, especially in this economic climate when construction prices are lower.
“It’s always a shame for swimmers here to have to drive to Calgary or Edmonton to get the amenities that cities like Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, Grande Prairie and Fort Mac already have.”