Olympic medalist Penny Oleksiak has spent her life in water. But it wasn’t until a recent trip to Kenya, that her dad saw her truly understand its significance.
BY SHELLEY PAGE
Richard Oleksiak, dad to Olympic swimming sensation Penny, was hopeful a ME to WE Trip to Kenya would give his family of elite athletes and seasoned travellers a dose of inspiration and some valuable perspective.
They got much more than that.
“It was a trip of extraordinary lessons,” Richard says. “It was a wonderful experience, a warm, friendly and loving environment in which everyone opened their hearts to us.”
The Oleksiaks are a busy family who managed to find two weeks to travel during Penny’s break from training and competing.
Penny is the youngest of five kids born into a family of athletes. Her parents were college athletes, with her mom holding records in backstroke and freestyle swimming. Her dad played basketball and football. One of her brothers played hockey in the NCAA, while another is a defenceman for the NHL’s Dallas Stars. A sister is a rower at Northeastern University.
Penny travelled to Kenya with her mom and dad, two sisters, and a good friend.
“This trip was more than just an opportunity for Penny, it was an opportunity for the whole family,” says Richard, a Toronto-based screenwriter.
“The whole experience of WE and what WE does in Kenya is something you really have to experience. You can’t read about it, you can’t see it on TV, you have to be there to really understand what changes they make to people’s lives,” says Richard. “And they do it without a direct impact on their culture or trying to make them Westernized. They really do respect the culture and they do respect the people. It was one of the most gratifying experiences I have had.”
He said one of the roles of parenting is to give your children perspective.
“With kids like ours, and like a lot of kids, just going away some place doesn’t really stimulate them,” Richard says. “But going away and experiencing something that is more than a vacation, it’s change of attitude for them. And they have brought that changed attitude back home and they are using it to amp up what they are doing.”
“Penny returned to Canada incredibly enthused about the world in general and what she can possibly do in it and how she could use her platform in swimming to achieve other things.”
For Penny, her success in the water has carried her far. But it wasn’t until she actually carried water on her back during the trip that she truly understood the importance of water—and how she could use her considerable stature to make the world a better place for others.
Penny describes how on one action-packed day, she and her crew arrived at the hut of a Mama to help her carry water from a nearby river. “We were told we were going to do a water walk. The mention of water made me curious. But I wasn’t really sure what that meant.”
Now, she’ll never forget.
After carrying an empty 20-litre jerry can down a rocky path, she filled it up with river water and then for almost a kilometre carried it on her powerful back. “I leaned so much about water consumption on that trip,” says Penny. “They were super diligent about teaching us about ways not to waste water and it really changed my whole perspective.”
Penny has spoken at WE Day before, including WE Day Canada on July 1st in Ottawa, but her dad says it was “all very abstract for her.”
“It’s a totally different thing if you’re in Kenya and moving bricks to build a school. It’s much more gratifying and much more rewarding to her, if she can participate in it.”
Penny is not the only one in the family who wants to do more with WE after their trip. “We all came back with a certain awareness of how WE could change things and how we as a family could contribute to expanding WE somehow,” Richard says, from Penny continuing her involvement to their teacher daughter in North Carolina trying to bring WE School programs to her school.
Adds Richard: “We’ve traveled the world and there is nothing like a WE trip, it’s indescribable. You come back changed.”