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Michael Phelps book tip helps Penny Oleksiak manage pandemic life

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A Michael Phelps book recommendation resonates with Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak more than ever these days.

Oleksiak has read Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now" multiple times since the American swim legend suggested the title to her.

The 19-year-old dove back into the book when the COVID-19 pandemic forced her out of the pool in March and into confinement in her Toronto apartment.

"I feel like I could recite the whole book by now," Oleksiak told The Canadian Press on Monday. "Michael Phelps actually recommended it to me.

"The first time I read it, I became obsessed with it. I just teaches you to live now and be present with everything that's going on in your life."

At age 16, Oleksiak was Canada's swimming sensation at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

She won four medals, including gold in the 100-metre freestyle, while Phelps capped his decorated career with five gold medals there.

The pandemic has Oleksiak, who normally spends almost every day in a swimming pool, constructing a life without it.

"I haven't really touched water in quite some time," the teenager said.

The 2020 Tokyo Games postponed to next year and her training facilities closed to prevent the spread of the virus, Oleksiak rides the stationary bike on her apartment balcony and lifts weights in her living room every morning.

She reads, cooks, conducts fashion experiments in her closet and thinks about what will make her swim fast in Tokyo in 2021.

"I'm pretty much just trying to get as much training in as I can in my apartment, but also trying to be as positive as I can be, use this time to really do stuff I never really have the time to do or put my focus in other places right now," Oleksiak said.

That includes getting involved with food banks, an opportunity that came up when Oleksiak's face was recently put on a cereal box.

It's now tradition for General Mills to adorn Cheerios boxes with photos of Canada's Olympic stars in the months prior to a Summer or Winter Olympics. The combination of the pandemic, the Tokyo postponement and the cereal boxes already produced prompted the company to pivot and pair the pictured athletes with people who work in food banks.

General Mills is donating $500,000 in cash and $600,000 in product to Food Banks Canada. The company is also repurposing purchased ad time earmarked for athlete endorsements to promote food bank workers.

The Oleksiak edition box en route to store shelves is linked to a digital box featuring Lori McRitchie, who is the executive director of the food bank in Airdrie, Alta. The two women had a video meet and greet recently. Oleksiak will introduce McRitchie on social media later this week.

"She's like the sweetest lady I think I've ever met," Oleksiak said. "She broke down what she does.

"It was awesome to talk to her and learn about it. Food banks and the importance of them, that wasn't something I'd ever learned much about."

Said McRitchie: "It was kind of a learning for us both. She didn't know a lot about food banks. I didn't know a lot about her, but it was a really cool conversation."

Airdrie Food Bank usage increased by 50 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, McRitchie said, mainly because of demand in the early stages of the pandemic in March.

"We anticipate we will maintain this 50 per cent over normal and maybe even higher as time goes on, before the re-entry happens and businesses are still mostly shut down," McRitchie said.

"Everyone needs to feel they matter in all of this. That's a message Penny will share, that you can make a difference and we all have a part to play in getting through these times."

Sprint star Andre De Grasse, trampoline gymnast Rosie MacLennan, skateboarder Matt Berger and diver Jennifer Abel have also been paired with food bank personnel.

"Sometimes you do have to take a step back because there are more important things going on in the world," Oleksiak said.

"Talking to people like Lori shows you this is bigger than swimming right now, this is bigger than sport right now."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2020.

Follow @DLSpencer10 on Twitter

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press




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