Olympic champion Penny Oleksiak on how to give for the gold.
By Jennifer Lee
Photography by Christopher Wahl
After her record-setting Olympic debut in Rio, Penny Oleksiak was awarded with more than just four medals—a notable first for a Canadian athlete at a single Summer Games. In addition to this sweeping victory, the 16-year-old powerhouse swimmer also won the honour of becoming Canada’s national pride.
“I definitely felt way more confident coming out of Rio,” the Toronto high school student says of the overwhelming support she received from Canadians.
For Penny, whose passion for athletics extends beyond the pool, the overnight social media stardom that followed her off the Olympic podium (during the span of the Games, she leaped from 700 Twitter followers to 26,000), provided a public platform to promote active living.
With 89,500 followers and counting on Instagram, a post from a workout at the gym by @typicalpen declaring, “It’s not all caps, goggles and suits, kiddies,” goes a long way toward motivating people to exercise.
“I’m just trying to inspire kids,” says Penny. “Even If that’s just making an Instagram post about what I’m working towards, or saying ‘I’m getting to the pool’ in a Tweet. I’m trying to do little things to help inspire kids to get more physically active.”
Growing up, Penny found a role model in her mother; today—a role model herself—she is inspired daily by her mom’s charitable spirit.
Read on to find out how Penny wants to help shape the future of Canada as she continues to learn from the compassion of others.
Why is “we” stronger than “me?”
As soon as you bring people together that are working towards a common goal, it just makes people so much stronger. Everyone can work together towards that goal.
What is the kindest action you’ve been on the receiving end of, and what about the gesture touched you personally?
My neighbour, Marie, opened her home (and pool) to the kids in the neighborhood, so they could learn to swim. Despite being ill, she always found ways to help others. She collected articles for me when I was in Rio, and if she cooked too much food, she would bring some over when she knew we were busy traveling with training.
Describe the core values of your ideal Canada.
My ideal Canada would be more confident. I noticed in Rio a lot of people were like, “I don’t know if we can win because of the Americans…” I feel like if we’re more confident, we could achieve more.
What is a cause you care deeply about and how do you want to help further it along?
I’ve really been into trying to help others in whatever way I can. I have a neighbour who comes every day to pick up bread; he gives it to the homeless shelters downtown. He works with Centre 55, a community centre. That’s something I definitely have wanted to get more involved in and something that I’ve wanted to help him with. I feel when people need your help, you should just help them.
Nominate one person you believe is working to positively change the future of Canada.
My mom, for sure. My mom has tried really hard to help me out, and she’s definitely very interested in helping other people. I just love watching her. Whenever we get stopped at a red light and there’s a homeless person, she’s like, “We need money right now,” and starts searching for it. That’s just my mom—she likes to take action.
As we work to make Canada a better country, what is one action you would like people to take?
Go for your goals! Young people should take action with stuff they’re interested in. Go for it, try it out! You won’t regret it.