Between now and the Aug. 8 opening of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Maclean’s will be profiling some of Canada’s most promising—and fascinating—Olympians. A compelling assortment of past champions and newcomers with still unfulfilled dreams. One has a resting heart rate of 38 beats per minute. Another is 38 years old and heading to his first Games. Tales of joy, sweat, and fears.
The memory of the good landing, the one that clinched the floor exercise gold that Sunday night in Athens, is still so vivid that Kyle Shewfelt can summon the sensations at will. That pregnant pause before the final tumble, to draw a breath and slow down lest the adrenalin rush of an Olympic gymnastics final carry him away. The glimpses of the bright blue floor as he spun through a double backflip and two twists. The feel of his toes digging in as he struck the mat, holding firm against
the tide of his own momentum. ‘T had practised for 16 years, pretending I’m in the Olympics and I have to stick this one,” he says. “I kind of grabbed the floor with my legs, and I locked it. It was the most unbelievable feeling, because I knew I had done the best routine I could have possibly done, at the time when it mattered the most.”
The memory of the bad landing—the one that could still cost him a chance at another title this summer in Beijing—comes unbidden, most often late at night, just before he drifts to sleep. An Arabian double front layout, snapped off in practice five days before the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, last summer, that went horribly wrong. The thud as Shewfelt’s fully extended legs slammed into the mat.
The cracking sound of both his shin bones splintering at their tops. And the unfathomable pain of both knees hyperextending, followed hard by shock and panic as he lay curled in a fetal position on the gymnasium floor.
“It was a millisecond of misjudgment, I thought I was higher than I was,” he says. “I can play it in slow motion in my head, but it all happened so fast, in the blink of an eye.”
His mates carried on without him in Stuttgart, qualifying for the team competition this summer while Shewfelt, splayed out like a gingerbread man, cheered on from the sidelines in a wheelchair, still in denial about the scale of the challenge ahead. His physiotherapist, Susan Massitti, kept him distracted, wheeling him downtown to get a Big Mac and a souvenir bottle of wine, talking through the painful stomach injections that kept his blood from clotting on the long flight home.
Back in Calgary, the reality sunk in. Major surgery—a screw in his right leg, a plate in his left. Months rather than weeks of rehab. And the kind of deep bone pain, “like my legs were being lit on fire, like I was being stabbed,” that medication can barely dent. For weeks, the 25-year-old, used to tumbling and vaulting like gravity somehow didn’t apply to his five-foot-five, 135-lb. frame, couldn’t get out of bed, prepare a meal, or have a bath without assistance. He had been injured before— he can’t recall a time in the last 20 years when nothing hurt—but never like this. Even the
painful ankle bone bruise in the run-up to Athens that limited his training and kept him out of competition, paled. Then there was the emergence of an unfamiliar opponent: fear. Not just the nightmares—visions of dismounting from the rings head first onto the floor—but doubts that began to cripple him during daylight hours as well. In December, long after the braces came off his legs and the crutches were put away, he found himself rooted to the deck of a local pool, unable to convince his body to leap feet first into the water. Eight months before Beijing, and the Olympic champion still couldn’t do the “things you learn in kinder-gym.”
Shewfelt’s blog (kyleshewfelt.blogspot.com) charts the indignities of recovery. Once-power-
KYLE SHEWFELT: OLYMPIC NUGGETS
Why gymnastics? It clicked. You know when you're a kid and you try a lot of different sports and one you are super excited to go to every day?
That was gymnastics for me.
Do you remember your first competition? I remember my first year. I think
Favourite sport besides your own?
All amateur sports. If I'm home on Saturday, I'm watching CBC amateur sport.
Pre-competition ritual or lucky charm? On the day of a competition,
I really keep to myself. I like to be in my own little world and not be distracted. When I was a kid, my mom learned really quickly that on competition days I turned into a little bit of a psycho, focused individual.
Special diet? I eat what I want, when I want to eat it. But I'm a very healthy person.
Guilty pleasure? Everywhere I go in the world, I like to have a Big Mac. It's
a tradition. At the Olympics, McDonald's is right in the village, so when I arrive, I have one right away. Then I can hold off the temptation until after the competition.
Worst or most embarrassing moment in competition? At the 2002 World's I did my first pass in the semifinal and ended up on my butt, because I was super focused on becoming world champion, not the routine. It backfired.
The secret to surviving on Canada's amateur sport funding?
Live at your parents' house as long as you can.
Do you have any post-competition life plans? I want to be the type of person that does a lot of things. I want to do some broadcasting. I'd love to continue doing public speaking. I want to open my own recreational gymnastics club, coach, and have some involvement in Canadian gymnastics.
And I'd love to be a consultant or scout for Cirque du Soleil.
ful legs left “as skinny as Nicole Richie’s,” having to trade his five-speed VW for his dad’s automatic Saturn, and a desire for a magic potion, idontwanttofeellikes-tanymoreicillin, that would return everything to normal. “In my life I’m so used to mentally overcoming my physical problems,” he says. Not this time. Months of halting progress. Stop. Go. Stop. Go—like a childhood game of red light, green light, he relates.
As an athlete, Shewfelt has never lacked drive. At the age of 12, he bailed on a family Christmas vacation so he could stay home and train. His greatest teenage rebellion was a decision to quit the sport, which lasted exactly one week. The two months he took off after Athens remain his longest break since he discovered his Olympic dream at the age of five. But in the midst of all the pain,
the self-doubt and anger, he has found a new, almost scary, sense of purpose. He was back in the gym before he could walk, doing chinups while wearing a 30-lb weight vest. As his lower-body strength has slowly returned, the workouts have expanded and intensified. Three mornings a week of weights. Onelegged wall sits, 40 seconds at a time. Endless squats, knee lifts and butt kicks, all in the name of regaining what he once took for granted. “This is my everything right now. There is nothing else in this world right now that’s more important to me than my sport,” he says. “I don’t want to look back and have any regrets. If it comes to the end of July and I’m just not ready, it won’t be because I didn’t put the effort forward, it will be because I am physically not capable.” By earlyjanuary, he was returning to the mat, vault, rings and high-bar, still limited by a left leg that won’t let him run at full speed—the stainless steel plate is irritating his hamstring—but feeling once more like a gymnast. The negative thoughts had been beaten back. The challenges deftly flipped into advantages. “Every day is a small victory, and that’s inspiring. It’s what every athlete dreams of— to have progress every single day,” he says. “Yes, my pace is a little slow, but every day is a little bit better. Maybe my competitors are in great shape, but they are going to have days when they feel like they should be able to do it and they can’t and that’s mental, not physical.”
The goals are simple. Run at full speed by the end of this month. Spend April and May building the routines back up. Return to competition at the national championships in Calgary at the beginning of June. Beijing, Shewfelt says, is no longer a dream, but an obsession, something he thinks about every minute of the day. He’s careful to dampen the expectations, adding that it will be a victory just to be in China and compete. But one senses that in his mind, Shewfelt is already thinking of the next good landing, and another trip up the podium. “When I’m prepared and I trust myself, I can deliver,” he says. ‘Eve never once missed a routine in Olympic competition.” M
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