Olympic bronze medalist Hilary Caldwell trains in the backstroke, her specialty, ahead of the 2017 Team Canada Trials, April 6 to 9 at Saanich Commonwealth Place.

Olympic bronze medalist Hilary Caldwell trains in the backstroke, her specialty, ahead of the 2017 Team Canada Trials, April 6 to 9 at Saanich Commonwealth Place.

Teen swimming phenom Penny Oleksiak in Saanich for national swim trials

Saanich hosts Canada’s top swimmers, April 6 to 9 at Saanich Commonwealth Centre

All eyes are on Penny Oleksiak this week as Canada’s star of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro takes to the water for the 2017 Team Canada Trials at Saanich Commonwealth Place, April 6 to 9.

Oleksiak, who led Canada with a gold, silver and two bronze medals at the 2016 Summer Games as a 16-year-old, is here with the nation’s best swimmers to compete for one of two Canadian spots in each event at the upcoming FINA World Championships, July 14 to 30 in Budapest, Hungary.

“Personally, I haven’t really felt a huge change,” Oleksiak said. “I sometimes think about [what happened in Rio], ‘Oh my goodness,’ but overall it’s not a huge change, though I do get a lot of great opportunities to go to events, and I had a parade in my little area of Toronto.” 

For Oleksiak, who won’t turn 17 until June, showing up to national meets means being the face of Swimming Canada, a role she’s still growing accustomed to. Oleksiak spoke to media at Commonwealth Place on Tuesday about her expectations and the added responsibility of talking to the media. She credited Saanich’s Ryan Cochrane for carrying the torch previously as the go-to Canadian swimmer at national and international events. Though their paths crossed only briefly in the leadup to the most recent Olympics, Oleksiak took notice of how Cochrane carried himself.

“… I learned a lot from [Ryan] in the few months I knew him,” Oleksiak said. “He kept his cool and is a super great guy, I’m excited to have the torch passed on.”

Despite her Rio success and being named Canada’s Lou Marsh Award winner as the top athlete in 2016, Oleksiak, still a high schooler, is trying her best to wipe the slate clean of expectations. Oleksiak won gold in the 100m freestyle, silver in the 100m butterfly, and two bronze medals as the anchor of the 4×100m and 4×200m freestyle relay teams. Her 100m time is an Olympic record, 52.7 seconds, shared with Simone Manuel of the United States, while both relays are Canadian records.

This week she’s focused on the freestyle and butterfly in the 100m, and not expecting anything.

“I’m not trying to put pressure on myself, I race my best when I’m laid back and chill about it.”

Rio was also a breakthrough for Victoria transplant Hilary Caldwell (of White Rock), who, at 25, won her first Olympic medal with bronze in the 200m backstroke.

Caldwell, now 26, is currently ranked No. 1 in the world right now and is swimming her fastest times ever, winning gold in the 200m backstroke at the second stop of the Arena Pro Swim Series circuit in Indianapolis on March 5.

“I hope to build on the momentum from last year, but it’s all about building on this year and towards Tokyo [2020 Olympics],” Caldwell said. “There’s always opportunity in the first year of the [Olympic] quadrennial, some people take a break after Olympics.”

Fellow Rio medalists Michelle Williams and Chantal Van Landeghem of the 4x100m team are also here this week, but there’s plenty of chance for new swimmers take the opportunity at hand, said Ryan Mallette, head coach of the High Performance Centre Victoria at Saanich Commonwealth Place.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for locals Sarah Darcel of Claremont secondary and UVic’s Josh Zakala,” Mallette said.

Darcel was recently fourth in the women’s 400m individual medley at Indianapolis while Josh Zakala (UVic Vikes) was sixth in the men’s 400m IM.

The achievement by Oleksiak, who jumped from dominating the national junior stage in 2015 to the national senior stage in 2016, and then again at the Olympics, has changed the way Swimming Canada looks at progression.

“The scale we judge improvement on has changed, there’s a big step forward these young athletes can take,” Mallette said.

The swimming heats start at 10 a.m. each day.


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