COLUMN: Youth arise and shine at Rio Olympics

As a former Olympic swimmer, it is surreal to watch these two-weeks every quadrennial.

As a former Olympic swimmer, it is surreal to watch these two-weeks every quadrennial.

Most of my life was compartmentalized into four-year blocks preparing for each Olympic cycle.

At 12 years old, I qualified for Olympic trials.

At 16 years old, I made the Olympic team — a dream come true.

At 20 years old, I was ranked number one in the world.  I finished fourth, being edged out of a medal by Michelle Smith, who was later banned for cheating.

At 24 years old, I was competing in my third Olympics, making my fifth Olympic Final.

At 28 years old I was training for my fourth Olympics but fell short by half a second to qualify.

After this, I moved on to life beyond competitive sport. In my 30’s life began to normalize with my career and starting a family of my own.

For the 2012 Olympics I was selected by CTV to be the colour commentator in London. I was honoured with this new view of the Olympics as I called each race and medal.

For the 2016 Rio Olympics, I felt content and peaceful to be watching with my husband, Delano and our three sport-loving boys aged nine, seven and three.

For the first week of the Rio Olympics, we were on a family vacation in Hamilton with my two sisters and parents.

Each evening, it was routine to tune in to watch the swimming finals. Oddly, I felt guarded in sharing my thoughts and emotions. I found myself just observing these Olympics.

Meanwhile, my sisters were cheering so loud at the television it was deafening.

During Day 1 of racing, as Penny Oleksiak dove in for her first medal, my eldest son was shocked to witness the ear-piercing cheering from his aunties.

One aunt responded, “You think we are screaming loud now?  You should have heard how loud we screamed for your Mom when she swam at the Olympics.”

It’s true.  My sisters, brother and parents had been my dream team.  Whenever I lost confidence, they were my rock.  If I needed to cry, they listened and consoled.  They celebrated whole heartedly with every victory.

They were always there to cheer me on.

Most importantly, they were proud of the person I was, not just my results.  I never felt pressure to do more from them.  They simply supported my goals.

To this day, my eyes well up reminiscing of their support.  To sit beside them and watch their emotions come pouring out for a fellow Canadian swimmer they have never met, made me so proud.

Penny Oleksiak did what every Olympian dreams to do. She became a multiple medalist  — gold, silver and bronzes.

Her performances resulted in four Olympic medals, which is the greatest in Canadian swimming history — the ultimate achievement.

I was immersed with pride witnessing history being made by a young Canadian athlete who no one expected to take the world by storm.  My favourite part about her story is that she was introduced to the sport relatively late.  At the age of 9 she didn’t make the cut to join the local swim team.  She had to get private lessons to get her up to speed.  Imagine that!  Her Olympic medal winning reactions were also priceless.

She has a unique habit to not look at the clock right away after her races.  She would battle it out to the wall, then hang off the lane rope to catch her breath and take off her cap, before finally looking up to scoreboard.  It was amusing watching her realize she won a medal!  First for a bronze, and then ultimately for gold!  Canada fell in love with her genuine reaction of disbelief, astonishment, and happiness.

Behind Penny’s raw talent, also resides incredible discipline, strength, work ethic, passion, self-confidence and a line of coaches that moulded her career along the way.  There is also her supportive family and friends sharing in the excitement of what she achieved and what her future will bring.  It had been 24 years since my teammate, Mark Tewksbury, won Olympic gold.  It’s incredible to see a Canadian owning the Olympic podium again.

It wasn’t until the final day of the Rio Olympics during the Track and Field events, that I completely shed my skin of composure.  We were watching Canada’s running sensation Andre De Grasse in the 200m race.  The gun went off and I stood up alongside my boys as we all bellowed, “Go.”

We celebrated in his victorious silver medal.  He was the ultimate underdog. All 5 feet 10 of him facing off with the 6’5” giant in stature and personality Usain Bolt.

I adore witnessing people’s personalities come alive through sport.

In my eyes, DeGrasse, like Oleksiak, is calm and confident.  They are modest yet have the world of talent and opportunity ahead of them.  I am so proud to have these great Canadian heroes for our youth and for all Canadians to share in their very bright future!

Joanne Malar is the program coordinator for Summerland Recreation, three-time Olympic swimmer, 2012 Olympic Commentator, kinesiologist and holistic nutritionist.