RIO DE JANEIRO — They are as flabbergasted as the rest of Canada.
They sent a normal, if undeniably gifted, teenager off to Rio de Janeiro for a great adventure, with modest hopes. By the time they get her back home, she will be one of the most famous Olympians in Canadian history.
Barely 16 years old, utterly unknown outside the swim community a year ago, Penny Oleksiak is going to have the kind of life neither she nor her extraordinarily close and well-grounded family ever imagined.
“We’re so stunned. We’re a little bit in awe of the baby of the family, what she has achieved — and I’m a little panicked as to how I handle a teenager after that resume,” her mom, Alison, said Saturday at a family news conference called by the Canadian Olympic Committee to answer, en masse, all the demands for More About Penny, the Toronto girl who single-handedly ignited a spectacular week for Canada’s Olympic swimmers, and for the larger Olympic team.
Well, an individual gold medal in the 100-metre freestyle, a silver in the 100 butterfly and, heading into Saturday night’s final evening in the Olympic pool, two bronze medals in the 4×100 and 4×200 freestyle relays.
The picture that emerged from a 45-minute conversation between an eager media and a beaming mom, sister Hayley and brother Jamie — both siblings accomplished athletes in their own right — was of a family steeped in competition, a little roughhousing, a lot of broken bones and teeth, and parents who had very clear ideas on how to let their children be children first, athletes second.
“My husband and I were really conscious of not streaming the kids into a sport,” Alison said. “So the girls did dance, all the kids played musical instruments, all of them did team sports, also individual sport … we learned pretty quickly that you can’t treat them as though they’re pros at 10 or 11 years old. We were pretty hawkish about that.”
Alison and her husband, Dick, went through it with Jamie, a 6-foot-7, 260-pound former Team Canada world junior defenceman now just breaking in with the Dallas Stars, and Hayley, a rower on the Northeastern University team.
“The reality was they all had to choose at about 14 what they really wanted to do, (but) none of them only did their sport. We were really big into cross-training and doing other things in the summer,” Alison said.
“It’s a problem for Jamie right now because he wants to go surfing and he’s not allowed to. But for the girls, they do cross-training, they do running in the summer, Penelope cycles with her dad. We try to find things we can do as a family.
“It’s a long-winded answer, but the point is, don’t stream your kids, don’t treat them as pros, they’re not. They’re kids.”
Big kids, at that. And competitive.
“When my sister was, I guess, 10, she was at her swimming pool and they were doing a contest to see who could do the most pushups,” Hayley said, “and she managed to go until her arms gave out and chipped the front of her tooth out … ”
“And then Jamie had a (hockey) fight a couple of months later and broke exactly the same tooth,” Alison said, picking up the story, “so both of them have fake front teeth at this point.”
“But Penny thought she was tougher because she did it at 10,” Hayley said.
Penelope, as her mom calls her, may be a star now but she is still a teenager, and she won’t be calling all the shots.
“You know, she’s got two more years of high school. We’ll talk I guess in the next couple of weeks about what she wants to do. One thing is, it’s going to be a family decision, it’s not just going to be Penelope’s decision.”
It’s quite apparent to all that Penny is a budding star in swimming who could be a prime performer for two more Olympics. But she is also young.
“Drives me nuts,” Alison said. “My husband and I, we’re just too old for teenagers. I mean, she’s a very typical teenager. We’ve been very upfront with any of the coaches she’s had that there’s going to be points in the year when she’s going to want to go to prom and she’s going to want to hang out with her friends and she’s going to want to eat a lot of doughnuts, because she loves them, and that’s not in (the national team’s) plan.
“But she’s got to have that balance. If we try to make her into a pro and make her be 100 per cent focused on this, she’s not going to do it for a long time.”
Hayley said her role as a sister, and Jamie’s as a big brother, is going to be “just keeping her normal. Giving her that level of normality that a lot of people won’t. Not blowing smoke up her butt, I guess.”
“I think all the attention she’s getting is a lot for anybody, let alone a 16-year-old, but we’ve always done a good job that once we’re in the household, she’s our younger sister,” Jamie said. “She’s just a younger sister with some Olympic medals now.”