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Olympic Gold Medallist Penny Oleksiak Is Every Canadian Teenager

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Gold medallist Penny Oleksiak of Canada poses during the medal ceremony for the Women's 100m Freestyle Final on day 6 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

As her medal count increased over the course of the Rio Olympics, Canada placed its hopes and dreams squarely on the shoulders of Penny Oleksiak -- the shoulders of a 16-year-old. And she came through, capturing our hearts and putting herself in the history books. But the importance of her victory doesn't stop there, it is also a reminder that every young person in Canada has potential that can be realized while they are young if we support and encourage them.

Canada's Olympic team ranged in age from 16 to 56 in Rio. Typically however, the Olympics remain the domain of the young.

In 2012, the average age of an athlete was 26 years old, with 33 athletes being 15 years old or younger. Studies show that the peak age for Ms. Oleksiak's discipline swimming is 21 years old, giving her plenty of time for more Olympic medals in years to come.

Her age has benefits when it comes raw physical ability, as author Robert Epstein explains in his book Teen 2.0. Healing time increases with age "quite dramatically; a 40-year-old's wound takes twice as long to heal as a 20-year-old's wound."

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Penny Oleksiak of Canada celebrates after she wins silver in the Women's 100m Butterfly final during Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

But her age has other benefits as well. In recent years, discussions about young people's brains have focused on the fact that some parts of our brains don't fully mature until we reach 25 years of age. The reality, however, is much more complex than this deficit narrative would have us believe.

The brain is a moving target. At the same time as our brains mature in some areas, other abilities have reached their peak and are beginning to decline in others. If we wait until young people hit an arbitrary definition of "mature" to encourage them to meaningfully contribute to society, we will have missed out on unique capacities that they only possess while we are young.

Ms. Oleksiak's teammate Katarine Savard recently said in an interview, "she's naïve, but in a good way, she's not asking herself any questions... she just wants to win."

That kind of laser focus, ignoring the obstacles and just concentrating on winning is a quality that young people, 15- to 25-year-olds in particular, enjoy. Our research at that University of Waterloo as part of the Youth & Innovation Research Project has also shown that young people have a heightened ability to be collaborative, creative, observant and curious, alongside an increased willingness to experiment, take risks and challenge the status quo.

Some of these skills are valuable to our young athletes, but they are also incredibly valuable beyond the sports arena. They are in fact core elements of what it takes to be innovator.

What might be possible if instead, in all areas of society, we celebrated and supported talent at any age just like we do at the Olympics?

When it comes to sports, we encourage young people to show us what they are made of while they are young and we celebrate them for it. But millennials and generation Z often get a bad rap when it comes to succeeding in other domains -- business, civil society, the public service or elected office. We expect young people to "wait their turn," and if they don't, words like entitled, impatient and unrealistic start getting thrown around.

What might be possible if instead, in all areas of society, we celebrated and supported talent at any age just like we do at the Olympics?

When Alison Oleksiak, Penny's mom, said last week that Ms. Oleksiak is in fact "a very typical teenager," she reminded us of something important.

As exceptional as Ms. Oleksiak's accomplishments were in Rio, she is one of many young Canadians with unique capacities and talents who are just waiting for their opportunity to shine. If we surround them with support and mentorship and encourage them to excel no matter how old they are, they will no doubt live up to the challenge just like Ms. Oleksiak did in Rio.

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