How COVID-19 helped Canada's most decorated Olympian put her mental health first
Despite her historic performance at the Tokyo Olympics, swimmer Penny Oleksiak admits she experienced her fair share of nerves going into the games after the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined athletes for much of 2020.
“Getting those nerves again was like, honestly, kind of a shock to the system. I wasn't as ready for it as I thought because I was getting so nervous and I was like how do I deal with this,” Oleksiak, now the most decorated Olympian in Canadian history, told CTV National News.
“We haven’t really been able to compete on a big level in so long, so I think just getting up there with people who are the best of the best is a little bit intimidating.”
Oleksiak and teammates Kyle Masse, Sydney Pickrem, Maggie Mac Neil captured a bronze medal in the medley relay Sunday, setting a Canadian record and producing a historic seventh career medal for the 21-year-old Oleksiak.
But, like the thousands of other athletes competing in Tokyo, the Games represented Oleskiak’s first opportunity to race on the world stage since the Knoxville Pro Series in January 2020 – more than a year and a half ago. It’s a challenge she says she was better prepared for thanks to the opportunity to focus on her mental health during the months-long lockdown.
“I was training so much I didn't really have time to focus on my mental health. Once COVID hit, I took it as a chance to really focus on my mental well-being. I was really just trying to make the most of it and really figuring out my priorities and what makes me happy in my life,” she said.
“I think that's really motivating for me going back into training, working with people and making sure that I had ways to help myself.”
Oleksiak exploded onto the swim scene at the Rio Olympics in 2016. She was just 16-years-old at the time.
In Rio, Oleksiak tied with American Simone Manuel for gold in the women's 100-metre freestyle in Olympic-record time, took silver in the 100-metre butterfly and anchored the Canada's freestyle relay teams to a pair of bronze medals.
In Tokyo, Oleksiak added a bronze in the 200-metre freestyle and silver in the four-person 100-metre freestyle relay in addition to the bronze medley relay, making her the most decorated Canadian athlete.
“I don't know if I've been able to totally soak it in yet. I'm honestly just kind of happy that the meet is finally over,” she said.
“It's like the longest week ever and to be able to get that last medal with the relay girls I'm so happy with that. I can't wait to get home and be around my family and my friends and really just soak in every moment of it.”
Teammate Masse echoed Oleskiak’s sentiment, speaking of the bond between the Canadian women.
“Being a part of a relay team is so special and the bond we've formed together, getting the opportunity to train together, is even more special,” Masse told CTV National News.
“Obviously, we had high expectations and we wanted to get on the podium for the last time and bring Penny that seventh metal and create history and create a legacy. So, there was definitely nerves there, but I think it's all about channeling those nerves and pumping each other up and supporting each other, to just really go out there and have fun and race as fast as we can.”
And despite her excitement to return home, Oleksiak already has her eyes set on the next Olympics.
“I'd honestly still say it's only the beginning for us,” she said. “We have a really young team this time around and I'm just excited to see what's going to happen in 2024, 2028 with all the talent that we have on the team.”