While 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak was making a frantic push Thursday night to win gold in the 100-metre freestyle at the Rio Olympics, 14-year-old Madison Diaz was urging her on, thousands of kilometers away.
“She was kind of lagging the first 50 and when I saw her come back I was just like very tense,” Diaz said, recounting the race.
“[I was] looking at the screen, cheering her on through the TV.”
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Diaz has been swimming for almost five years and said a desire to one day be in the same shoes as Oleksiak is what drove her to the sport.
“I always told my parents that it was my dream to be in the Olympics, so they decided to put me in competitive swimming,” Diaz said.
That same urge could bring a new wave of female athletes to swimming; especially given the success of Canadian women at the 2016 Olympics, led by Oleksiak.
“Having a 16-year-old which kids can relate to, it’s very uncommon, this will definitely spark a lot of interest,” said Eric Kramer, the head coach of the Saskatoon Lasers Swim Club.
“This is going to be good for the next cycle, because now swimming really put Canada on the map.”
Getting involved in sport at a young age can do more than just keep kids healthy, according to University of Saskatchewan kinesiology Prof. Kent Kowalski. He said the initial attraction can turn into year’s worth of important life skills.
“Working within an environment in which you have to learn cooperation, deal with challenges, deal with leadership that sometimes you like and sometimes you don’t like,” Kowalski said.
“Sport sort of reflects a lot of the environments people face in life, so learning to work within those environments within sport I think has a lot of benefits outside of sport.”
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However, for a young athlete to reap the full benefits they must stay involved in the new sport of their choice. Kramer said the key is to allow athletes to participate in other activities and remind them that the path to international competition can be long.
“We do have to go step by step in swimming,” Kramer said.
“As coaches we have to be patient, we don’t have Olympians at 12 and 13.”
Having role models can also help young athletes stay motivated and committed. Eleven-year-old Avery Weiland swims with the Lasers and said she has been watching Canada’s women take to the podium in Rio.
“It just makes you think, I want do it,” Weiland said.
“I want to go and I want to swim.”