Olympic swim sensation Penny Oleksiak may have captured the world’s attention with her record-setting summer in Rio, but her focus nevertheless remains on her studies back home.
By Richard Ouzounian
Dedication. Desire. Determination. Discipline. When you walk into the gym at Monarch Park Collegiate Institute in Toronto, these are the words you’ll see. Though they’ve likely been there long before Penny Oleksiak enrolled at the east-end school, it’s inspiring to think that they could have played a part in her tying as Canada’s most decorated Olympic swimmer ever. After all, she trained in that very space leading up to the Rio 2016 Games — and it was there that Bryan McAlpine, OCT, guided the teen through a gruelling but effective semester-long personal fitness program prior to her summer of triumphs.
Meeting Oleksiak in that very gymnasium, on a brisk December morning, is to understand the study in contradictions that she presents to the world. At 16 years of age, she stands at an impressive 6 foot 1 and radiates an almost tangible air of profound physical strength — yet somehow she’s retained the shyly endearing smile of an ordinary teenage girl. Gnawing distractedly on her blue-painted nails, the young record-setter discusses the Lou Marsh Trophy she had won the day before. When asked how she feels about being named the country’s top athlete, beating out the likes of a long list of superstars, she replies: “It means a lot, especially knowing that I was considered on the same level as Sidney Crosby — I bet he doesn’t even know who I am. But that was yesterday — it’s time to move on to the next thing.”
With Oleksiak delivering so many surprises in Rio, it’s anyone’s guess as to what to expect next. “There are people who say that Penny could easily become the most decorated athlete in Canadian history,” says McAlpine, who was her physical education teacher last year. “But we all have to understand that she’s only 16 — we need to peel off the pressure.”
One of the ways that the staff at Monarch Park does that is by making sure that equal attention is paid to the Grade 11’s academic and athletic life — an approach that her parents strongly support.
“Monarch Park keeps me grounded. It means a lot to know that this is my safe zone.”
“My mom and dad have always said, ‘You’re a student first, an athlete second,’” laughs Oleksiak. As the youngest of five children — all of whom have athletic predilections — it’s a philosophy they’ve arrived at through experience. Her brother Jamie has already acquired his own celebrity as an NHL defenceman with the Dallas Stars.
The school/sports balancing act that appears to come naturally to the Olympian hasn’t always been easy. In Grade 9, the freshman’s grades began to suffer as she struggled to keep afloat. “By Grade 10, I realized I needed help,” admits Oleksiak.
Enter McAlpine, a lifelong athlete himself, who understands the stresses of dealing with a full course load while competing in a high-performance sport. “Penny was training three hours in the morning, and then three hours in the evening,” he recalls. “The guidance counsellor worked with all of her teachers to ensure that she could do the majority of her schooling online during those few hours between practices.” This key adjustment allowed Oleksiak more time to participate in school life, which has always been important to her.
“Monarch Park keeps me grounded. Everyone here is very supportive; but not in an over-the-top intrusive way. It’s not like I’m running around signing autographs,” explains the recently named Canadian Press female athlete of the year. “It means a lot to know that this is my safe zone.”
McAlpine admits that, at times, he feels like his life was designed so that his and Oleksiak’s lanes would ultimately meet. As captain of the Queen’s University golf team, he made the pivotal decision to pursue an academic career over professional sports — leading him to earn a bachelor of physical education and then a degree in teaching. He taught at Northern Secondary School in Toronto for seven years before moving to Monarch Park, where he is now the head of athletics.
According to McAlpine, his main goal is to help students discover a healthy lifestyle that they can comfortably maintain throughout their lives. “We try to teach character not just sports,” he says. “What’s that famous line? ‘Sports don’t build character — they reveal it.’”
But what happens when a truly great talent crosses his path?
“I knew what Penny was when I met her. She’s a pure athlete. She has the character, the skill, the drive, the will, everything.”
But teaching Oleksiak has been a two-way street for the 13-year teaching veteran.
“I always ask her what she’s doing for mental training. I want to learn from her, so that I can pass it on to all of my students,” says McAlpine. “She has a quiet confidence; it’s not arrogance but she’s not afraid to fail. I admire her guts.”
Oleksiak’s approach is breathtaking in its simplicity. “Before races, I always tell myself that it’s going to be hard and that it’s going to hurt by the end — whether I win or lose — so I might as well try my best.
“If I lose, I accept it and figure out what I did wrong. If I win, I accept it and try to forget about it — it puts less pressure on me,” explains the swimmer. “If I say to myself, ‘Hey, you’ve just won the Olympics!’ you’re likely to choke on the next thing. You have to learn to let things go.”
So what about those record-breaking four medals she carried home from Rio? “I think I deserved them, because I put in a lot of hard training. I didn’t expect them, but I think I earned them.”
McAlpine agrees. “We knew her goal was to make the Olympic team; just to get on it. But as we watched how she was developing, we said, ‘This could be real. She could medal.’”
If you walk through Monarch Park with Oleksiak these days, the sound you hear in the hall isn’t a cheering crowd but a laughing teenager surrounded by her friends — a young woman who just happens to be the most successful athlete in Canada today.
That makes Bryan McAlpine happy. Not because he gets to teach an Olympic wonder but because he gets to fulfil his goal in life. “All I’ve ever wanted is to focus on my students and help them discover their potential — whatever that may be.”
In this department, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.