Canada's women earn medley relay bronze, Penny Oleksiak claims historic seventh medal

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TOKYO — Penny Oleksiak's historic medal was a group effort.

A medley relay bronze medal by the Canadian women's swim team Sunday made Oleksiak the most decorated Olympian in Canadian history with her seventh career medal.

Kylie Masse of LaSalle, Ont., Sydney Pickrem of Clearwater, Fla, and Maggie Mac Neil of London, Ont., set Oleksiak up to swim the anchor freestyle leg into the history books.

"I love that," Oleksiak said.

"Knowing that I have the best girls in the world to race with, I pretty much had a medal in the back of my mind the whole race. I'm racing with three of the best swimmers in the world, so why should I worry?"

The 21-year-old from Toronto surpassed Canadian speedskater Cindy Klassen and speedskater-cyclist Clara Hughes at six medals apiece.

Oleksiak was a breakout star of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio winning 100-metre freestyle gold, butterfly silver and a pair of relay bronze at age 16.

Australia's women captured gold Sunday in Olympic-record time of three minutes 51.60 seconds ahead of the runner-up Americans in 3:51.73. Canada set a national record of 3:52.60 in third.

The women's swim team amassed six medals in Tokyo — one gold, three silver and two bronze — to equal the half-dozen in Rio five years ago. Their preparation for Tokyo couldn't have been more different, however.

The COVID-19 pandemic pulled the swim team out of the pool and kept them away from racing for large chunks of the last year and a half.

Swimmers left their training bases and regular coaches to be able to train under an exemption at Toronto's Pan Am Sports Centre.

"We've had one of the strictest lockdowns in the entire world, so it was just putting the training that we've doing for the last 15 months in and showing the world what we have," Mac Neil said.

Tokyo trials originally scheduled for April in Toronto were postponed to May and delayed again to June as Ontario grappled with cases of infection.

"If somebody had said to us two and a half months ago, 'You'll go to the Olympic Games, you'll win six medals with one or two extra silver than you did in Rio,' we would have taken it there and then," Swimming Canada high-performance director John Atkinson said.

Mac Neil, 21, takes home a complete set of medals from her first Olympics with 100-metre butterfly gold, a freestyle relay silver and medley relay bronze.

Oleksiak and Masse also collected three medals in Tokyo. Masse earned a pair of backstroke silver.

Mac Neil and Oleksiak raced to silver in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay on the first day of finals. Oleksiak was also a bronze medallist in the 200-metre freestyle.

She finished fourth in the 100 freestyle and swam the anchor leg of the 4 x 200 freestyle relay team that also finished fourth.

"Once I got that sixth, there was a little bit of pressure on me to get that seventh medal," Oleksiak said. "My two other races I was really thinking about it, get that seven, get that seven. Then I came fourth and both of those hurt a little bit.

"But then, honestly, on the last race, I accepted it. I have six Olympic medals. I'm not going to complain if I leave here with six Olympic medals."

After 10 races in nine days, Oleksiak also revealed she'd been managing a back injury for some time, but declined to go into detail.

"I've been going through hell and back for the last, like, two or three years," she said. "I think these girls have kind of seen me struggle through it pretty hard."

When Mac Neil draped Oleksiak's medal around her neck, Masse applauded and Pickrem shimmied in celebration on the podium.

"Most decorated," they chorused with their arms around each other during post-ceremony interviews with reporters.

"The fact that we can get to swim with her and we get to contribute to that is really, really special," Masse said. "She's a legend and we're really, really happy for her."

With Masse, Mac Neil and Oleksiak among best in the world in backstroke, butterfly and freestyle respectively, it was up to Pickrem to hold the line in breaststroke.

She specializes in the individual medley. Canada was third after her leg.

"Yeah, I was definitely really scared," Pickrem said. "I wanted to do my best for them because I did feel like a weak link, but they never made me feel like that.

"They definitely brought me to the forefront and they helped me get my first Olympic medal."

The medley medal was Canada's first since 1988 and fourth in the 61-year Olympic history of the race. Canadian women were bronze medallists in 1976, 1984 and '88.

Taylor Ruck of Kelowna, B.C., Pickrem, Mac Neil and Toronto's Kayla Sanchez posted the fastest qualification time in Friday's heats to get Canada a middle lane Sunday.

The men's medley relay team of Markus Thormeyer of Delta, B.C., Gabe Mastromatteo of Kenora, Ont., Toronto's Joshua Liendo and Calgary's Yuri Kisil finished seventh Sunday.

The swim team returns to Canada on Monday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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