For the first time in its 26 year history, the recipient of the National Leadership Award from Our Lady of Lourdes was young enough that she could be a student at the school herself.
At the age of 16, Penny Oleksiak became the first Canadian to win four medals in the same Olympic Summer Games in Rio and later that year was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as the country’s top athlete.
Now 17, Oleksiak accepted the Lourdes National Leadership Award in a ceremony Tuesday.
Oleksiak said she hasn’t struggled so far with being considered a role model and is just trying to be the best person she can be.
“It’s difficult to give everyone what they want all of the time, but I just want to be able to be there for people to relate to. If that means I have to stay back at a swim meet an extra two hours to sign stuff for every kid that’s there, then I am going to do it. I’m going to treat people how I want to be treated,” she said in an interview.
Oleksiak said her core message is for kids to go out and do what they love — no matter their age, skill level or ability.
“You can go and do it. You just have to find something you love,” said Oleksiak.
Grade 10 student Lily Brousseau, who is a member of the school’s swim team, said she was inspired by Oleksiak’s performance at the 2016 Summer Games.
“She definitely brought the message to persevere through any challenges you are going through,” said Brousseau.
When Brousseau was younger, she said she swam competitively but then took a break. While watching Oleksiak’s performance at the 2016 Summer Games, Brousseau said she was inspired to get back in the pool.
“She is a big inspiration, especially in swimming. As a kid I was never the best swimmer on my team, I was doing it for fun and exercise. What she said today inspires me to keep going, even if you’re not always the strongest or the fastest — just keep going,” said Brousseau.
During Tuesday’s ceremony a video was played of Oleksiak’s first gold medal swim at the 2016 Summer Games, after which the Olympian famously didn’t look at the results on the board for a good 30-or-so seconds before learning she had placed first.
Grade 10 student Sidney Koebel asked Oleksiak why it took so long for her to turn around.
Oleksiak told her in that moment she didn’t think she had placed on the podium, but no matter what the result was on the board, she had decided to accept it.
“My legs were dead, my arms were hurting, I had no air. I was just trying to breathe. I was also just telling myself, even if I did come last, I can’t complain because I am at the Olympics,” said Oleksiak.
Brousseau said that moment of elation when Oleksiak learned she won gold was inspiring.
“You could almost feel her sense of euphoria through the TV. It was so cool to see here,” she said.
Joe Tersigni, a former teacher at the school and founder of the award, said kids need role models and Oleksiak ticks off all the boxes.
“Leadership is sometimes internal, it’s being able to say I am going to beat anything. I’m going to try my best and never say die,” said Tersigni.
As a bonus, she is the same age as many of the students at the school.
“She’s 17, she’s in Grade 12 now. For kids to see she is doing all this training — and she’s going to school — she’s to be admired, for sure,” said Tersigni.
The school was lucky to find time in Oleksiak’s schedule, said Terseigni. She’s in the pool training by 5 a.m. and is scheduled to drop the puck before Tuesday’s 2 p.m. Maple Leafs game in Toronto.
Oleksiak said she doesn’t have any specific goals yet for the 2020 Summer Games, but is currently training for the upcoming Commonwealth Games being held in Australia this April.
“I just want to get as many golds as I can and hopefully help out my relay (teams),” she said.
Oleksiak said her schedule is still busy, but not nearly as crazy as it was immediately after the 2016 Summer Games.
“It’s better, now. I still do a lot of teenage things — I go to concerts and hang out with my friends and everything. It’s a lot better than it was right after the Olympics — it was a little bit crazy then, but I think with the help of my parents and my support system it works out,” she said.
Oleksiak said she felt a little nervous to accept the award in front of kids her own age, but that being a role model ‘comes with the territory’.
“I think it’s kind of fun, because it gives kids something to relate to. I think it’s harder to relate to models and people who are older than you and seem way more successful than you. It’s way easier to relate to someone who is just this kid from the Beaches in Toronto who is just swimming because she loves to do it,” said Oleksiak.
Past recipients of the award include Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, both of whom Oleksiak has met through her work with the We movement.
“Just to be up there honoured with them is so amazing and such an honour for me," she said.