Penny Oleksiak, Canada’s all-time winningest summer Olympian, is a 16-year-old swimmer from Toronto who was yesterday named winner of the Lou Marsh award, presented to the country’s best athlete. Down to earth, funny, meticulous, Oleksiak radiates the values that inspires all of us to not only be our best athletes, but be our best selves. Here’s 10 things runners can take from the Oleksiak story and apply to their own running, and their own lives.
10. Be consistent
Oleskiak, a high school student, has a routine that works and that she seems to enjoy. She swims, lifts weights, goes to school; then swims, lifts weights, does homework and sleeps. If your life isn’t working for you—if your diet is too restrictive, if you’re running too much, if you hate your mom, it’s harder to succeed. Sure, great athletes overcome tremendous odds and take on the world with a chip on their shoulder. But for the weekend warrior, those hoofing out a few K in the cold after work, it’s hard to keep training if we’re miserable. Make your routine into something that works for you and your routine is more likely to last.
9. Be humble
Penny didn’t arrive in Rio with expectations to take over the world. She wasn’t one to watch and, by all appearances, she didn’t approach the games as a make-or-break moment in the development of her life. How many of us approach our starting lines as if the world depended upon our finish? And who in the world, outside of ourselves, could possibly care about our finishing time? Take the pressure off yourself when racing. Penny seemed to have fun at the Olympics. Why would you not have fun at your next 10K? Here’s a hint: you’re likely to race better if you do.
8. Enjoy yourself
Paying the mortgage is challenging. Keeping your kids in university, keeping your marriage a sparkling delight, keeping your boss on your side, are all things worth losing sleep over. Does a running a negative split fall into that category? It’s good to take running seriously. It’s very hard to do speed work at 5 a.m. if you’re not invested. But watch Lanni Marchant at the start line, dancing with Natasha Wodak in Ottawa. When you’re tense, it’s hard to succeed.
7. Respect the game
Penny knows what she’s doing when she dives in the pool. She has a game plan that she follows. She doesn’t have two beers and a cheeseburger before practice. Disappointing results are directly related to disappointing preparations. Give yourself, like Penny, a chance to succeed. Don’t expect to arrive at the Blue Nose marathon ready to take on Reid Coolsaet if your long run topped out at 20K. That’s ignorance and runners should know better than to forget that running long distances very quickly is hard.
6. Chill on social media
Oleksiak’s Twitter account is a negativity-free zone. She’s funny, gracious, uses goofy emoticons and generally has no time for haters or trolls. How many of us, out of the spotlight, can say the same thing? By reducing distractions, accenting the positive, being a force for the good, an athlete like yourself can compete free of baggage. Don’t get bogged down by the noise that accumulates around Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and whatever else abounds on the world wide web. Be negative free in your dealings: it’s one way to lighten your load.
5. Keep your friends close
Who would leave Rio, go to Canada’s Wonderland with her buddies, then return to Rio for the closing ceremonies in time to carry the flag? Someone with their priorities in line. Running is all about community and Oleksiak is about staying close with her friends, who do not treat her like a star but like one of the gang. So many times runners get the bug and isolate themselves from their loved ones or pals. Don’t do that! It’s hard to keep it up if you’ve become an island. Oleskiak’s success is grounded in her normal behaviour, which, in some part, is fuelled by her being Penny From the Block. There’s no need to change when you get competitive. Canada’s Athlete of the Year didn’t. Why should you?
4. Don’t quit
Oleskiak was rejected from every Toronto swim club she tried out for when she began. What did she do? Swam in a neighbour’s pool until she got better. Swam with her dad. Kept at it. Kept chipping away until she grew and prospered. Who among us hasn’t had a bad race? A marathon where we walked, a 10K where we blew out at the third kilometre, a training run we skipped because we didn’t sleep the night before? Stuff happens. It happened to Penny. But she stuck with it. It’s cold outside. Stick with it. Penny did.
3. Respect animals
Penny has a dog and cat. Just sayin’.
2. Give back
Penny has power now and what does she do? Stumps for Sick Kids. She was asked about sponsorships and prize money and all of this lucre and professes to have no interest in that kind of thing. Those distractions. Sure our athletes need to eat. And runners especially are barely rewarded and should be much more lavished in Canada than they currently are. That’s obvious. But Penny is much more apt to talk about Canada’s veterans or Craig Keilburger and WE Day than she is about the make of her swimsuit or her brand of towel. Don’t obsess about your gear. Obsess about what charity you run for. “If you’re running for yourself,” says Wesley Korir, “you’re just chasing the wind.” Oleskiak doesn’t do that at all.
1. Live your best life as often as you can
Can you imaging being not only the winningest Canadian at a summer Olympics but also the country’s youngest Olympic champion? How would you celebrate such a reward? Would it go to your head? Would you buy out the bar? Go on reality-TV or pull a Kanye and announce to the world: I am a star, hear me roar?? Oleksiak went back to high school, often taking media request from the hallways of Monarch Park Collegiate, which isn’t even famous for its swim team. Take the pressure off your running. Have a life. Mark Sutcliffe tried 22 times to get into Boston. During that time, he became one of the country’s best known radio personalities. The running improves when it’s not your everything. Too many eggs in one basket and the basket will break. Reid Coolsaet said that, now that he’s a father, he ran the best marathon of his life. Me and you, we’re amateurs. Hoofers. Folks that do this for fun. Take running seriously. But be like Penny: the best thing for a runner is living your absolute best life.