Midway through a 90-minute training session at the University of Toronto, a group of Special Olympians climbed out of the pool to sing happy birthday to Olympic swimming star Penny Oleksiak, who led Wednesday morning’s practice.
Oleksiak recently moved her training base to Gainesville, Fla., but returned to Toronto for a densely-scheduled week that included events with her main apparel sponsor, Asics, time with family and friends, and her 18th birthday. But the four-time Olympic medalist carved out time for an early-morning clinic with five Special Olympics swimmers from the GTA.
Like Oleksiak, the Special Olympics are celebrating a milestone — this year marks the 50th anniversary of the inaugural competition. For Special Olympics Canada and its athletes, the year culminates with the national Summer Games, which take place July 31 to Aug. 4 in Antigonish, N.S.
And for Oleksiak, the clinic provided a chance to lend her expertise and profile to the Special Olympics’ ongoing efforts to make sport more inclusive.
“If I can do my part to make someone else’s day better, and try to inspire kids, then I know I’m doing what I can with what I’ve been given,” said Oleksiak, who won the 100-metre freestyle in Rio in 2016. “I’m excited to be able to do that.”
The idea of an early-morning swim-clinic pairing was born in April, when Oleksiak was inducted into the Toronto Sports Hall of Honour alongside Special Olympic swimmers Gohulan Rajalingam and Jeffrey Steiman. When Rajalingam met Oleksiak at the induction ceremony he quickly asked if she could train with Special Olympians for a day, and Oleksiak agreed.
The session landed during a busy week for the now-18-year-old swim star.
Earlier this year she moved to Gainesville, joining a training group headlined by controversial U.S. star Ryan Lochte, and aiming to peak for the Pan-Pacific Championships in Tokyo in late August. While in Florida, she’s also completing online courses to earn her high school diploma. Tuesday she helped Asics with a Toronto product launch, Wednesday afternoon she had a practice session scheduled.