During the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica, Tanner won four gold medals and three silvers, becoming the first woman to ever win four golds at a Commonwealth Games. She won the Lou Marsh Trophy, recognizing her as Canada’s best athlete in 1966 — the youngest person to ever receive the award — and was also selected as the country’s top athlete overall. The following year at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Tanner won two gold and three silver medals, breaking two world records in the process. Tanner arrived at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City as a heavy medal favorite. She won three Olympic medals in Mexico City, including two individual silver medals and one relay bronze. However, the media deemed the lack of gold a disappointment and led Tanner to suffer from depression, retiring from competition after the 1968 Olympics at just 18 years of age.
In a mere minute and seven seconds her Olympic dream and those of a nation would be dashed forever. Despite returning with 3 of the 5 medals earned in total by Canada’s Olympic Team the fact that none of them were Gold eliminated any heroic welcome for her. Rather she faced headlines which read “Tanner Loses Gold” and microphones shoved into her face with the scathing question of “Why did you lose?”
With no immediate life line to hold onto or empathetic ear to hear her inner cries for help, her fall from grace began. Emotionally crippled and in silent pain, Elaine’s downward spiral dragged her into many forays into the psychological wilderness desperately trying to seek refuge for her wounded soul.
In 1968, Canada’s most decorated swimmer of all time – Elaine Tanner – returned home with 3 Olympic medals. Despite winning 3 of the 5 medals that the entire Canadian Olympic Team returned home with, Tanner’s efforts were considered a failure as none of her medals were gold.
Are you prepared to stand on an Olympic podium and be considered a failure? Are you prepared to train for years and years only to end up as a commodity or as a tool to be used by your sports governing body to serve the personal agenda of those who are supposed to be leading the sport honorably? Many aspiring athletes dream of representing their country, train for years to represent their country, qualify for their country’s Olympic Team only to have their country spit on them in return. It happened to Elaine Tanner, it has happened in recent times to athletes such as Sinead Russell who represented Canada at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Why are you pursuing an Olympic medal. There is only one right answer why to pursue an Olympic medal. If you are not pursuing it for that reason, then I guarantee that the outcome you anticipate will not be the outcome you experience. The journey has to be started for the right reason, thus it has to start the right way.
A cautionary note to athletes & parents of athletes…
Pursuing an Olympic dream is not without risk. Its a journey that cannot be taken lightly and the story of athletes like Elaine Tanner should be mandatory reading for all aspiring Olympians. It will likely come as a shock to many athletes and parents of athletes that swimmers like Elaine Tanner and Diane Torres (to mention just two) have stood on the steps of an Olympic podium after years of anticipating that the podium would fill the emptiness within, that the podium would make all things right, that the podium would finally remove the void… only to realize podiums don’t. These athletes are gutted when they discover that podiums provide little more than a bouquet of flowers, a medal and a short moment of fame. The fall from years of building up the moment to Everest type heights is never anticipated, nor is the withdrawal, the depression, the suicidal ideations that are suffered in the after math.
The pursuit of any dream must be accompanied with the proper physiological preparation, and as importantly with the proper psychological preparation. Athletes must train through their limiting mental narratives and emotional burdens that they are apt to bury with hopes that winning will make up for what they perceive as faults and short-comings, and often for what is felt as a deep sense of inadequency.
The void of self-love & self-respect cannot be filled from with-out, only from with-in.
The void is never filled with podiums, medals, championships, rings or trophys.
Athletes who train in hopes that winning will heal the wounds within are the most vulnerable to being tempted to sacrifice everything… to win. When winning fails to provide wholeness, these athletes are the highest risk of falling to depths that no one is prepared for, least of all the athlete.
Athletes & parents of athletes… if you truly do intend to pursue your potential, then ensure that the coach, the mentor, the individual who you will follow on the path is sufficiently educated, skilled, and experienced to assist you. The path is not easy for any, but a proper support system makes the attempt to summit the mountain of your potential not a life risking endeavour.