Q&A with Canadian Olympian Penny Oleksiak
TORONTO, Ontario — Penny Oleksiak is Canada’s most decorated Olympian, winning 7 Olympic Medals.
During her Olympic debut at Rio 2016, Penny Oleksiak, just 16 years old, became the first Canadian Athlete to win four medals at a single summer games. She became Canada’s youngest Olympic gold medallist ever, was selected as Team Canada’s Closing Ceremony flag bearer, and won Canada’s Athlete of the Year and the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as the CP Female Athlete of the Year.
I had the opportunity to talk to her about recovering from a knee injury, health, supplements, social enterprise businesses she supports and training for the upcoming 2024 Olympics.
How are you today?
Penny Oleksiak: I’m good. Everything is going smoothly right now.
In terms of training, recovery?
Oleksiak: Ya, I’ve been weirdly running into a bunch of random injuries recently, but I’ve been really trying to take advantage of recovery and easy type of training. I’ve been recovering well.
Are these injuries swimming-related?
Oleksiak: We’re not sure about the origin of the injuries. We are getting some blood work done to make really sure. It’s just been all over the place.
That must be highly stressful and frustrating. How do you plan around injuries or move forward?
Oleksiak: I just try and control what I can at the end of the day. For me, just doing what I can with being healthy, taking care of myself as much as possible, and being realistic with the training load I can do is big for me. I’m just taking control of what I can.
I see on Instagram your focus on health and wellness.
Oleksiak: Nutrition hasn’t been a huge component of my life until about the last year. It’s just been fun to go on that journey and find out what foods make me feel really good and what foods don’t make me feel as good, and what supplements I can use to boost certain things. It’s been a really fun learning experience over the last year.
How did you get involved with Natural Calm Canada (NCC) and Boltons Naturals Supplements?
Oleksiak: Honestly, it was kind of a perfect match, I guess. I wasn’t looking for too many sponsors, and NCC reached out. I’d never really partnered with a supplement company before. I work with Hekate, a mushroom supplement, but outside of that, with NCC, it was kinda cool when they reached out to me because I love their initiative. I love everything that they are doing. I love their focus on charity and getting their message to the world about sustainable nutrition and sustainable farming. So I think that stood out to me, but also having the ability to work with and promote something like magnesium was important to me, too. While I’m on my own health journey, I like to bring people along with [me] and teach people little tips and tricks that I use, so that was something else that was big for me.
That sounds like the perfect match. Do you notice a difference then with taking the magnesium supplements? Did you take them before, or are you just now discovering magnesium and how it can help you?
Oleksiak: I took magnesium a little bit before, but like I said, my health journey has only been the last year. After Worlds last summer, I just took three months to do a deep dive, delve into my health, and look into everything beneficial to me and how I can be a better athlete and feel better daily. Magnesium was something that kept popping up as really important to be taking throughout your day and at nighttime. My favourite is taking the NCC magnesium with melatonin, which helps me sleep well and maximizes my recovery while sleeping. So I have enjoyed taking magnesium more often and boosting that recovery and boosting all these benefits because it also helps so much with everything else I’m doing.
And it helps your performance as well?
Oleksiak: Yes, it’s been huge.
That’s awesome to hear. And then, regarding recovery, were you taking it before you got injured? Are you noticing that you are recovering better or faster and that there are benefits to injury recovery and prevention as well?
Oleksiak: I think the recovery has been huge for me because I’ve been so diligent with my supplements and magnesium, especially since it’s something I’ve been told before will help [make] recovery a bit quicker. Also, I have always had a lot of anxiety and researched how magnesium can help women [especially] with their anxiety. When I tore my knee, it was the first big injury I’ve ever had where I needed surgery, so I knew that I would have a lot of anxiety about not recovering fast enough and not being able to do things I normally would. Magnesium was definitely something I researched to help with my anxiety, but my recovery has surprisingly been really fast for my knee. They [doctors] initially told me 6-9 months. Everyone told me nine months was when a torn meniscus fully recovers, but I’m now six months out and fully recovered. I’ve been pretty much fully recovered for the last month or two, so I’m pretty far ahead of schedule. My whole recovery, I was way ahead of what my doctors were saying. I was off crutches after only a couple of weeks, maybe?
That’s awesome to hear.
Oleksiak: I attribute [my recovery from injury] to being diligent with my supplements, health, and nutrition.
It must play a huge role! Do you have some favourite Natural Calm and Bolton’s Naturals products that you use?
Oleksiak: Um, hmm. For Natural Calm, I love love love, and I will literally praise this forever, their sleep magnesium with melatonin. I love it so much I take it every night. It’s part of my nightly ritual, a little wind down that I can do, and it’s really quick and easy. For Bolton’s Naturals, I love any of their sprays, and their creams are really good. I think it’s something really quick and easy to promote recovery, and also, when we are training in [places like] Florida, I love to be moisturized. I use it like a double effect, I can moisturize my skin, and at the same time, I know that I’m putting magnesium in to help my body recover.
I just got a few of their products and have started using the cream. I’m a lot older than you and have a lot of achy joints, so I feel like I should just bathe in it. Get my magnesium and help my joints.
Oleksiak: Literally, that’s like what I do. (giggling)
I’m curious and want to have a conversation here, you mentioned anxiety, and that’s got to be difficult as an athlete of your status with media, interviews, and competition at such a high level and young age. I mean, how do you manage it all?
Oleksiak: I think it’s been a long process to figure out how to manage it all. For a while, I would think I had it managed, but then I really didn’t, and it would all just fall apart again. I spent a lot of time over the last little while just really getting to know myself, especially with my injury. It really slowed everything down for me. I couldn’t go to all my training sessions or go out with my friends all the time. There was a lot of time I was just at home alone, and I had to just learn about myself, the things I like, and the things I don’t like. Things I like about myself and things I don’t like about myself, so I have, I don’t know, learned a lot about myself as a person and found what makes me happy. I’ve just tried to stick with things that make me happy and know when I’m getting to the point where I might need some external help from one of my therapists or family, or friends. So I think it’s just about knowing yourself, and when you’re getting to a point where you need to seek external help, and I just don’t let myself get to that point anymore where it’s over the edge, and I’m spiralling. Now I think I’m more in control of knowing when to manage myself.
That is a really powerful message to send to athletes in general, and also, you have young girls looking up to you. To say that it is ok to reach out for help and know when you need it, I think that’s powerful.
Oleksiak: I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned because growing up, I was always terrified. Even when I think about school, I was always so scared to go to my parents and ask for help. Over the last while, I’ve just learned that people want to help, and they want to help before I become a mess, so that’s been really big for me.
And why swimming? How did you pick swimming and know that was your thing?
Oleksiak: Honestly, I picked swimming pretty randomly. I did a lot of sports growing up, and my parents always made sure that we were always busy, always doing something. Mainly because they were working and they needed us out of the house, but we also just had so much energy, and they needed that to be tamed as well. I was just always doing sports growing up. I remember my sister and I were doing dance at the same time, and she wanted to quit. Of course, me being the younger sister, I wanted to follow in her footsteps, so I also wanted to quit.
I remember my parents saying well, ok, you have to pick something; you can’t just do nothing. Randomly [I said] I want to try swimming, and I remember my parents, who have always done this, were like, OK. And right away signed me up for tryouts at a few different clubs and got me set up with as much as they could. My parents have always been so supportive. They wanted to give us the best opportunity that they could give us to be the best at something we wanted to pursue. They put a lot of time and effort into making sure that they could find a really good trainer and coach for me, and I appreciate that.
But I think the stars aligned or something because Ben Titley, at the centre, was training all the high-performance athletes, and he saw me training with my club team at the time, and he took me under his wing at the time high-performance centre in Toronto. So I got to train with those guys for a little bit when I was super young, like 12/13, and I honestly didn’t know how far I would be able to take swimming. I just knew that I enjoyed it. I liked getting better, and with swimming, there are so many small technical things, so it was always fun to learn about something new. And you can always change something in your stroke in swimming, so it was just fun to be a part of that process. Then I didn’t really know that I would be able to do anything until after 2016, when I started getting presented with new opportunities and new experiences and things I would never have experienced in my life before. And then I was kinda like, oh, maybe I can kinda do something with this, this is kinda cool, it’s fun to be able to train and swim as my career and be able to do all these crazy crazy things that I’ ’m so grateful for.
To go back to Bolton’s. I know you were supposed to Climb Kilimanjaro, and it was super devastating that your injury came just before that. What made you want to climb in the first place and continue fundraising even though you couldn’t climb?
Oleksiak: It was honestly so funny because Linda and Dale, who own Bolton’s Naturals and also work with Natural Calm, reached out to me. [They said] “We do this Mt. Kilimanjaro climb every year, and we know you probably can’t join us but if you want to join us online, that would be amazing.” And I remember thinking, why would I support it online? Why wouldn’t I just go with them and do it? That’s so cool. And they were really surprised that I was very down to do it on a whim. I just thought it would be such a cool life experience. Being an athlete, we travel so much, and I’ve experienced so much in the last 6,7 or 8 years with getting to travel and experiencing different cultures. I feel really lucky to do that, so I try to take opportunities whenever I can. But also [I wanted] to go and see what Linda and Dale are doing in Africa because they have a school where they teach people how to farm and how to grow food as medicine and make it sustainable for farmers and to help them teach their communities how to do it.
But then I tore my knee literally two weeks out before the climb. Even when I was in Florida, sitting in my little room, and I had ice on my knee, I was on the phone with someone from my team, and we were still on Facetime shopping for the Mt. Kilimanjaro climb. I was like, “Ya, it’s probably fine, right?” I was so determined to go, and when I couldn’t go, it was devastating because it was something that I was excited to do and I still want to do. So I’m hoping I get that experience in the next year or two. But I still had to fundraise, which I found important to do and spread the word about. It was already something I had talked about, so it made sense to ask people to donate; it’s just as important as if I didn’t do the actual climb as if I did. It was important to get the message out and show people the importance of what they [Lindaa and Dale] are doing and the importance of this climb to raise awareness.
I see you do some other ambassadorship as well. I liked your Tim’s cookies.
Oleksiak: Ya, I always have fun with things like that. I want to be able to use my platform for something good, so if I can help people along the way, that’s something that is cool to be able to do.
So, are you a gardener yourself? Do you know how to garden?
Oleksiak: I right now rent in Toronto, so there isn’t much gardening to be able to go down. However, growing up, my mom was a huge gardener and would always be gardening in the summer and spring in Toronto. Our front yard, our back yard, it was always something we were surrounded by. And even a lot of my friends will garden or their grandparents will, and it’s just cool to go to their house and eat this fresh food. Even when I visited Linda and Dale, we had this whole meal. I remember I was so nervous about going for dinner with them, and then when I got there it was very wholesome and very nice. They made us this meal from veggies and fruits in their backyard and showed me how they are gardening and everything, so I think gardening is going to be a big thing once I have my own place. But at the moment, I’m trying to find my own place so I can start gardening.
Don’t worry. I’m not putting you on the spot here. You’ve got a lot going on, like the Olympics in 2024. How do you prepare and plan for something as gigantic as that?
Oleksiak: I’ve now been to two, so I’m hoping I’ve got it down this time but there’s a lot that goes into it. At the first Olympics, I had no expectations; I literally went into it having the time of my life. It was so much fun. I was biking around the village and having a great time. Going into my second Olympics, I just tried to emulate the same energy of going in without expectations and having fun. Because I find when you are happy, you are going to be relaxed, and you’re going to be confident. Just enjoy your time and make the most out of it. So I think for me this time around, I’m just putting an emphasis on taking care of my body before I go, so I’ve been really working on nutrition. I’ve been looking into what kind of exercise works the best for me, just trying to optimize my health so I’m able to train better, and once I get there, just relax and know that I’ve got all my training in, know that I’ve taken care of my body and just enjoy my time and see how it goes.
Big picture question here. Why should companies and businesses add a level of philanthropy, like Dale and Linda do, to help those less fortunate? Why should people do that?
Oleksiak: I feel like the question is more like, why not? There’s so so so much money going into big brands, and I just don’t see the point of not putting that money into your community, into other communities, into bettering the world if you are able to. Even that’s something that when I was fundraising, I tried to preach in the sense that if you can’t donate, just try to get the word out about this. Even if you just want to talk to me more about it, I think there is so much power in educating people on things happening in the world. So I think just being able to get the word out and have something to stand on, and something to stand behind, will make such a big impact. And I just think it’s such an important thing.
I liked how you reframed the question there. I know you can’t answer this because you don’t know for sure, but you did hint that you want to climb Kilimanjaro with Natural Calm Canada and Thrive for Good at some point.
Oleksiak: Definitely, that’s non-negotiable for me.
Awesome. Well, maybe we will meet and hike up a mountain together someday! It was super nice talking to you, and I wish you all the best of luck in your training and recovery, and stay healthy! Have a great day!
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