US & Canada

Rio Olympics 2016: Penny Oleksiak, Canadian swimmer, makes a splash

Canada's Penny Oleksiak tied to win the gold medal, setting a new Olympic record in the women's 100-meter freestyle at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Image copyright AP
Image caption The 16-year-old swimmer wins Canada's first gold medal at the Rio Olympics, out of seven overall

The women's 100m freestyle final at the 2016 Olympics was a race marked by historic feats.

While American Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold in swimming, it was 16-year-old swimming prodigy Penny Oleksiak who burnished her reputation as one of Canada's premier athletes.

Oleksiak tied with Manuel to take the gold, setting a new Olympic record of 52.70 seconds.

The Toronto native was in seventh place at the halfway turn before she soared into first place and became the first Canadian to win four medals at a summer Olympics - all in her first appearance at the Games.

Oleksiak has cemented her status among her country's top female athletes like hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser, who has represented Canada at five Olympics and won seven world titles, as well as diver Jennifer Abel, who was the youngest Canadian diver to ever compete at the Olympics in 2008 and won five world championship medals.

But it may be Oleksiak, whose landmark performance has put her in the international spotlight, who is poised to take the mantle of Canada's greatest female athlete.

The victory, though slightly overshadowed by Manuel, also marked a milestone for Canada.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Canadian diver Jennifer Abel (left) and four-time Olympic gold medalist and hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser (right) are among the country's top female athletes
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Manuel (left) finishes the women's 100m freestyle final tied with Oleksiak (right), while world record holder Cate Campbell (centre) is sixth

It was the nation's first Olympic swimming title since Mark Tewksbury won the 100m in Barcelona 24 years ago and it was achieved by the youngest gold medallist in Canadian history.

Oleksiak's medal count in Rio included the silver in the 100m butterfly and two bronze medals from the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays.

Dave Ling, a former assistant coach at Toronto Swim Club who worked with Oleksiak, told the BBC that she only began swimming the 100 fly at a very serious level within the last year and a half.

"Using the word prodigy to describe her," he says, "that is very accurate to what she is."

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Media captionManuel & Olesiak take joint 100m free gold

Lucky Penny

Oleksiak, described by her former coach as a "LeBron James-type of talent", is no stranger to sport.

The teen sensation's older brother is Jamie Oleksiak, a professional NHL hockey player for the Dallas Stars, while her sister, Hayley, rows for Northeastern University.

But she made waves in the swimming pool from an early age, breaking national records at the age of 12.

"I never underestimate her and I've always thought she was a star," says Bill O'Toole, head coach of the Toronto Swim Club who coached Oleksiak until last September.

Mr O'Toole described Oleksiak as a humble and professional athlete with a great attitude.

He points to the teen's habit of not looking at the clock upon finishing a race as an example of her professionalism.

As Canadian media noted, Oleksiak waited in Thursday's race before she turned around to see her time with a look of elation.

"I definitely knew the pressure was on to try and I guess make history and get four medals," Oleksiak said after the win. "But it wasn't something I was trying to think about before my race, I was just trying to think about swimming as fast as I could and to be happy with whatever outcome.

"The last 15m, I put my head down and I bit my lip and I was just going as hard as I could."

Mr Ling adds the young swimmer looked relaxed before her historic swim.

"When she looks comfortable, when she's laughing with competitors, that's when she is the most dangerous," he said.

A future star

While Oleksiak was barely on the Olympic radar, Mr O'Toole said he was not shocked the young swimmer did so well in Rio.

The teen took home six medals at the 2015 Fina World Junior Swimming Championships after swimming 21 events in Singapore last year.

"There are very few times that she hasn't exceeded expectations or done something phenomenal," he says while recalling her talent.

Oleksiak has another chance to make history in Rio in the 4x100m medley relay on Saturday.

If Canada earns a medal in the relay race, Oleksiak would tie the Canadian record for the most medals won in a single Olympics.

Speedskater Cindy Klassen won five medals at the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics.

"She's going to be Canada's next athletic superstar," Mr O'Toole says of his former student. "The sky's the limit for her."

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