VANCOUVER — Penny Oleksiak still finds it hard to believe that she gets asked for autographs.
“There were a couple girls waiting for me at the airport when I got here,” the 17-year-old swimming star said Thursday after training for this weekend’s Mel Zajac Jr. International meet at the University of British Columbia. “I think it’s not normal, but it’s something I’ve adjusted to and got used to.”
Oleksiak became a household name while winning four swimming medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but the Toronto native is still trying to figure out how fame has changed her life.
“Honestly, it’s hard to say (how), because I can’t really remember what I was doing before,” she said. “I was just living my life like a normal teen and, now, that’s what I’m (still) doing — but there’s obviously some people watching.”
But the attention nationwide attention that came almost overnight in Rio is not a big deal to her anymore.
“I think, at first, it was a bit more exciting for me,” she said. “I was, like, ‘Oh, this is cool and I can get my story out.’ And then, I was kind of like, ‘Now I’ve told everyone my story.”’
So Oleksiak is getting on with life as she attempts to follow up on her success as the first Canadian to win four medals in the same Summer Games and the country’s youngest Olympic champion. In Rio she won gold in the 100-metre freestyle, silver in the 100-metre butterfly, and two bronzes in the women’s four-by-100 and four-by-200-metre freestyle relays.
The accomplishments brought many accolades, including being named Canada’s flag-bearer in the Rio closing ceremony and the winner of the 2016 Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year. Canada’s Olympic women’s swim team was named The Canadian Press team of the year in 2016.
The recognition brought heightened expectations — from others and herself.
“There’s definitely an underlying pressure that I put on myself,” Oleksiak said.
She will apply that pressure while preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Games with the Pan-Pacific championships this summer and the world championships in 2019.
“My focus is (on) just getting fit and back in shape before Pan-Pacs,” she said. “I’ll see how that goes and, after that, (concentrate on) getting better for worlds and then better for the Olympics. It’s just a buildup for me.”
Right now, she is trying not to think too much about competing in her second Games.
“In February, that was in the back of my mind,” she said. “But I plan to just keep it in the back of my mind until it actually becomes something that (I) have to deal with now.”
In the meantime, the Grade 12 student is working on graduating from high school, probably next year, while taking classes mainly online these days as she travels to various events.
Oleksiak will use this weekend’s meet, which features several international swimmers, including U.S. Olympians Ryan Lochte and Caeleb Dressel, as an opportunity to gauge her performance and fitness levels.
“I’ve been training really hard the last month and a half, and I’m a little bit dead, but we’ll see where I’m at, I guess,” she said.