ATHENS'04

Finding a place on the podium

JONATHON GATEHOUSE August 30 2004
ATHENS'04

Finding a place on the podium

JONATHON GATEHOUSE August 30 2004

Finding a place on the podium

ATHENS'04

KAREN COCKBURN doesn’t remember much of a fuss surrounding her bronzemedal win in Sydney four years ago. Trampolining had just graduated from high-school gyms to the Olympic Games, and other winning Canadian athletes—Simon Whitfield, Curtis Myden, and the women’s eight rowers —were getting most of the attention. There was a whirlwind of interviews, of course. And when she got home to Toronto, there were

some nice congratulatory letters from the mayor, business organizations, even a note from the prime minister of the day.

It’s either a measure of how her sport has grown, or how hungry Canadians were for the hardware last week, that Paul Martin’s office was on the phone literally two seconds after she struck silver in Athens. The nation’s collars had been feeling a little tight—not that you had to tell Cockburn, a

gold-medal contender going into Athens. “People are always telling you, ‘Oh, we don’t have any medals yet,’ especially when you’re in a place where you’re expected to win,” she says. “You feel it, and you put even more pressure on yourself. That’s why I was so nervous today.”

Leaping on legs so shaky that she was forced to tone down her acrobatic routines, Cockburn, the reigning world champion,

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JONATHON GATEHOUSE

came tantalizingly close to grabbing the gold. Sitting in first with four competitors to go, she spent 10 long minutes waiting to see first if, and then where, she would land on the podium. In the end, only Anna Dogonadze of Germany bested her score, winning by just fourtenths of a point. Cockburn’s teammate, Heather Ross McManus of Almonte, Ont., finished sixth.

It was a nice bookend to a week that saw the Canadian team struggle to find its rhythm. Blythe Hartley of North Vancouver and Emilie Heymans of St-Lambert, Que., captured the country’s first medal, a bronze in 10-m synchronized diving on Aug. 16. Coming

just two nights after the pair finished a distant seventh out of eight teams in the 3-m springboard, it was an inspirational performance. But it was one that the original odd couple —Hartley is a self-professed nervous wreck on the diving board, while Heymans is so cool under pressure that you keep checking the pool to see if she’s left any ice in her wakehad little time to savour. Both are medal favourites in this week’s individual diving competitions. “I was scared, I’ll be honest,” says Hartley. “Knowing that you did one bad event and that anything can happen, I didn’t want it to happen again. And Emilie and I, we didn’t know what to do to fix it.”

By the time they arrived at the pool Monday night, however, they had found their answer—the 22-year-olds had decided to stop taking this Olympic thing quite so seriously. They joked around in the warmup, cracked wise under their breath as they stood on the edge of the platform, and found humour in the misery of competing before a worldwide television audience while carrying a nation’s hopes on their shoulders. “On the tower, my mind was going a mile a minute,” says Hartley. “At one point, I said to Emilie, Tm so stressed that I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ and she was just laughing at me.”

The heavily favoured Chinese pair of Lao

Lishi and Li Ting, who seem to float rather than plummet through the air, took the lead on their first dive and never looked back. The equally diminutive Russians passed the Canadians for the silver with their fourth of five dives. Hartley and Heymans carried on, nailing a difficult back 2lk somersault IV2 twist combination on their last dive. Then they waited to see if the final pair, from Mexico, could catch up.

A glitch in the electronic scoring system left Canadians in the stands and pool deck hanging for long, anxious minutes. “I was hoping that somebody would get the defibrillators out for me because I was about to have a heart attack,” says Mitch Geller, the team’s head coach. Hartley sat waiting in her bathing suit, shaking all the while. Heymans, who won silver in the same event with Anne Montminy in Sydney, went and got changed. All business, she took off the victor’s laurels as soon as she left the podium (too scratchy, she explained later). “It gave me a taste,” says Heymans. “It makes me want to come out strong, and to dive really well.” There were other strong Canadian per-

formances that fell just short. David Ford, the star whitewater kayaker, came fourth in the K1 slalom, pushed out of third by the final entrant in the competition. The women’s épée fencing squad—Monique Kavelaars of Appin, Ont., Julie Leprohon of Montreal and Sherraine MacKay of Brooks, Alta.— fought gamely but dropped its bronze-medal match to France. Marie-Hélène Chisholm, a judoka from Varennes, Que., narrowly lost her bronze-medal match. The beach volleyball teams—Guylaine Dumont of St-Antoine-de-Tilly, Que., and Annie Martin of Sherbrooke, Que., along with John Child and Mark Heese, both of Torontoadvanced to the final 16.

Even those who finished out of the running found consolation in stellar performances. Weightlifter Maryse Turcotte, from Brossard, Que., finished 11th in the 58-kg class. The 29-year-old lifted more than twice her body weight over her head, and equalled a personal best with a combined 210 kg in the snatch and clean-and-jerk events. Sporting an ear-to-ear grin, she talked about how the result made her brutal schedule of the last two years—juggling training while completing a master’s degree in hospital administration-all worthwhile. “You don’t play weights, you know, you lift weights. It’s serious work.”

There were heartbreaks too. Nicolas Gill, the Canadian flag-bearer and defending silver medallist in 100-kg judo, was knocked out of the tournament in the first round. A downcast Gill, who struggled back from serious knee surgery to make the Games, says he has probably reached the end of the Olympic road. “It’s obvious that I’m getting older,” he says. Quebec cyclist Lyne Bessette was ready to make a charge in the women’s road race but was involved in a crash and was unable to finish. Daniel Nestor, who won doubles tennis gold in Sydney, and his new partner Frederic Niemeyer lost in the second round to the reigning Australian Open champs. Niemeyer was too upset even to talk. His partner could understand. “You’re playing for Canada, playing for your country, playing for your team,” said a subdued Nestor, “and you know Canada is not doing that great so far, and so you want to do well.” lifl