GOLD COAST, Australia — For two swimmers with six Olympic medals between them, career firsts should be hard to come by. But when those swimmers are just 17 years old, there’s still plenty to experience and plenty to learn.
Thursday marked one of those rare new experiences for Canadians Penny Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck as they swam in their first-ever Commonwealth Games races.
And they have the medals to prove it.
Ruck, born in Kelowna, B.C., posted a Games-record time of one minute, 54.81 seconds on the way to a gold medal in the women’s 200-metre freestyle.
If that wasn’t enough of a unique experience, the new Commonwealth champion was also awarded her medal by Prince Charles.
In the final event of the evening, Ruck swam the anchor leg behind Torontonians Oleksiak and Kayla Sanchez and Montreal’s Alexia Zevnik to win silver in the 4×100 freestyle relay.
Para swimmer Sarah Mehain, of Vernon, B.C., rounded out the Canadian medal haul in the pool on Day 1 with a silver in the women’s S7 50m butterfly.
‘I have a lot of things I can fix’
Both Ruck and Oleksiak are trying for medals every time they jump in the pool, but that’s not all they’re looking to gain in Australia. These Games are a measuring stick for the young swimmers, who are expected to lead the Canadian charge in the pool at the next Olympics, in Tokyo in 2020.
“[The Commonwealth Games are] just kind of a viewpoint of where I am right now going into the next Olympics,” Oleksiak said. “I’m not expecting to be at my next Olympic level right now, [I’ll] just see where I am, see what I can fix, and then build from there.”
One of those things she aims to improve is her recovery after races, and she acknowledges she still has work to do in other areas as well.
“I have a lot of things I can fix right now,” said Oleksiak, who finished seventh in the 200 race in which Ruck struck gold. “It’s kind of up from here.”
There are still lessons to be learned about how to cope at a major multi-sport competition, and Ruck agrees that the Gold Coast offers a refresher course of sorts.
“Having already been to Rio, there are many similarities between the two Games,” Ruck said. “Being able to transfer the skills and lessons that I learn here to Tokyo would be really helpful to my performances there.”
Oleksiak said the environment, while at times overwhelming, offers another opportunity to grow as a competitor.
“It’s pretty crazy because it’s literally athletes everywhere, but it kind of teaches me to be more professional in front of other people, and not always joking around all the time,” Oleksiak said before adding: “But I still like to have fun.”
Part of that fun is facing off against the Australians at these Games, who provide an extra bit of motivation for Oleksiak.
“All the [Australians] I’m racing, whether it’s Emma [McKeon], Cate [Campbell] or Bronte [Campbell] or any of them, they’re all amazingly fast girls,” Oleksiak said. “It’s a little bit intimidating because I know I’m never going to get a rest from them, but it’s fun because they’re always going to keep pushing me.”
Down Under fans are over the top
The Australian 4×100 relay team, which won gold in a world-record time of 3:30.05, was seemingly energized by the feverish support of a home crowd.
An ocean of green and gold surrounded the outdoor venue as the host country’s fans — clad in team colours — were as loud as the crashing surf on the Gold Coast, cheering on an Australian squad that features sisters Cate and Bronte Campbell, Emma McKeon and Shayna Jack.
“Swimming in front of the Australians is amazing, an experience unlike I’ve ever had,” Ruck said. “When I was in the ready room I heard them cheering for the other Australian swimmers and I was like, oh my gosh, they were so loud and I’ve never heard that before. It was crazy.”
Ruck’s family is with her in Australia, helping the teenage phenom keep a semblance of normalcy. It also allows her at least one of the comforts of home — the traditional breakfast fixed by her dad on competition day.
“I don’t think my parents have ever been to such a large-scale meet, and having them here is just amazing. I got to see them yesterday and that was really cool,” she said. “My dad sometimes makes this thing called bennies, which is just like eggs benedict, but it’s special [to me].”
Family is on Oleksiak’s mind too as she swims with a heavy heart after finding out the day before competition that her grandmother had passed away.
Given the news one of my grandmothers died today breaks my heart. I feel extremely grateful knowing that she was able to live a long life having the ability to see her children and grandchildren succeed in various aspects of their lives. #whoidothisfor
There are five days of competition in the pool left to go, and both Oleksiak and Ruck will be podium favourites in more events, both individually and in relays.
Ruck said team competition is important to her.
“Just being able to be on the relay with my closest friends [makes it] super special because I’ve trained with them and shared so many experiences with them.”
There should be plenty more of those experiences still to come.