Fifty years ago, silver sent swimmers on different paths

by Nathan White

Elaine Tanner sits by a fireplace in Qualicum Beach on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.

As she sips a coffee and looks out over the Strait of Georgia, she can see almost all the way to Mexico City, 4,000 kilometres and 50 years away.

“It’s so much time, but there’s a part of you, an essence of you that still feels like it’s yesterday,” Tanner says.

On Oct. 23, 1968, a 17-year-old Tanner earned a silver medal in the 100-m backstroke to become the first female Olympic swimming medallist in Canadian history. Nicknamed “Mighty Mouse” after the popular cartoon character of the era, she went on to capture silver in the 200 back and a 4x100 freestyle relay bronze – the first Canadian triple medallist ever.

Outweighing her accomplishments though was the feeling of falling short of expectations. The Globe and Mail had tabbed Tanner for gold in both backstroke events, and Sports Illustrated had her as the favourite in the 100. She went in as top seed after setting Olympic records in both her heat and semifinal. Although she swam another personal best time, American Kaye Hall set a world record in the race of her life and took gold.

“There is nothing more uncertain than a dead immortal cinch, as Elaine Tanner discovered last night when she lost a gold medal everyone had touted her to win,” Globe and Mail reporter Dick Beddoes wrote.

“We were disappointed in her,” David MacDonald and Lauren Drewery wrote in their 1981 book Canada’s Greatest Women Athletes. “Somehow Canadians arrived at the conclusion that she had let them down, when, if anything, the reverse was true.”

Tanner says she doesn’t remember the tears, or the ensuing medal ceremony.

“I’ve kind of blanked it all out in my mind for 50 years,” the Vancouver native says.

She internalized the failure, never swam a major international meet again and although she’s now got a positive outlook on life, it took her two decades to come to terms with it.

Elaine Tanner - Photo Credit: Olympic Report Mexico 1968

Just a few minutes down the Island Highway, in Parksville, B.C., Ralph Hutton sits near the living-room shelf that holds his silver medal, which he earned a few minutes before Tanner.

Hutton’s hardware in the 400-m freestyle was the first Canadian swimming medal – period – in 40 years. The "Iron Man" also fell short of expectations after entering Mexico City as the world record holder but, unlike many silver medallists, he was happy right away.

“At the time I was thrilled with getting silver and I’m still pretty thrilled I got the silver,” Hutton says. “You can always go back and think of things you could have done different, but you didn’t. I did the best I could at the time, so I thought there’s no reason to be disappointed or upset.”

Maybe Hutton’s outlook was helped by being a little older and more experienced (it was the 20-year-old’s second Games and he went on to a third). Maybe it was because Hutton had his coach there (Tanner’s coach Howard Firby was somewhat controversially left off the team.)

Hutton recalls the reaction of the legendary George Gate, his coach and men’s head coach at those Games.

“He just smiled and said, ‘We came close,’ ” Hutton says.

For whatever reason, expectations affected Tanner and Hutton differently. The difference in how they processed it speaks to how little was known about the mental game at the time.

Ralph Hutton - Photo Credit: BC Sports Hall of Fame

A 1968 Sports Illustrated cover story dubbed the Games “The Problem Olympics” and in 2016 the publication named the sprawling Mexico City one of the five worst host cities of all time. Transportation and food were issues, but Mexico City’s altitude – 2,250 metres above sea level – may have been the most heavily criticized aspect.

The political climate of the time was tense as well. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. set the stage for John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power Salute on the podium. Apartheid South Africa was banned from the Games, although the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia did not affect the participation of the Warsaw Pact countries. Polish athlete Ewa Klobukowska, however, was kept out of the Games based on invasive gender testing.

To prepare for the Games, the Canadian team gathered in Banff, Alta. (1,383 metres), prioritizing altitude training over an Olympic-calibre pool.

“We trained in a 50-yard pool outdoors that had cement stairs in the middle of the pool just coming out from one end,” says Ron Jacks, who was competing at his second of three Games and has been to several others as a coach. “If we ever thought of that now, we would just be aghast.”

While the Canadian swimmers were in Banff, the Mexican government massacred more than 300 protestors and arrested more than 1,000 others in an effort to suppress political opposition before the so-called “Games of Peace.”

“The circumstances were absolutely unique,” says Jacks, who got sick in Mexico City and wasn’t happy with his performances. “It wasn’t just like you were going to a big meet like Tokyo the Olympics before or Munich the Olympics after and getting jitters from a big meet. It was a whole different feeling.

“It was hard to tell what a good performance was.”

Amid the combination of environment and expectations, Tanner sat and waited. Her backstroke events weren’t until the back half of the 10-day meet. As Canadian swimming went the first five days without a medal, stories of bickering between the Canadian Amateur Swimming Association and Canadian Olympic Committee over team selection made the media.

Tanner found herself wishing she’d swum the 100-m butterfly earlier in the meet and thoughts of “What if I lose?” entered her mind.

“All of a sudden the psychology does a reverse and a little seed of self-doubt comes in – I’m going to let a country down,” Tanner recalls. “I was intensely driven from the inside, but I picked up the expectations that were growing from the outside.”

Meanwhile Kaye Hall, her American opponent, had been flying under the radar and resting all week on the advice of her coach, Dick Hannula. The schoolteacher travelled to Mexico City after his Wilson High School led a fundraising effort to send him from Tacoma, Wash., to support Hall.

Minutes before the women were to race, Tanner received a strategy change suggestion from women’s coach Ted Thomas, suggesting she start slow to save energy due to the altitude.

“Without her own coach there, that was one thing,” says Jacks, pointing out in retrospect that the 200-m and longer events were the ones especially affected by altitude. “That wouldn’t really be a great strategy for the 100. That might have been something that probably didn’t help her.”

Hall was nearby in the warmup area under the stands, and while she didn’t hear what was said, noted the conversation seemed odd.

“That was when I went, ‘Hmm… maybe there is a chance,’ ” recalls Hall, who had never beaten Tanner. “I walked away because it wasn’t going to change anything about what my plan with my coach was.

“What I had to do was get out in front of her and stay in front of her,” says Hall, who did just that.

Tanner turned it on at the end and was gaining on Hall, but ran out of pool.

“If it had to go for three more strokes, she would have out-touched me,” Hall says.

Tanner’s time of 1:06.7 was faster than her Olympic record from the semifinal, but half a second behind Hall, who set a then world record 1:06.2.

It was Hall who cried tears – of joy – as Tanner and the other nearby swimmers congratulated her. But the Canadian fell apart shortly thereafter.

“When she went into the media scrum and the questions were fired at her, ‘Why did you lose?’ It just crushed her,” recalls Nancy Greene Raine, the champion skier who was in Mexico City in a media and advisory role. “She was absolutely devastated and it was really an unfair situation.”

Elaine Tanner - Photo Submitted by: John Watt

It took Tanner decades to work through falling short by half a second, taking the “loss” personally and feeling like a failure.

Under the crushing weight of expectations, and without the right supports in place at the time, Tanner’s life took a downward turn after the Games. She had two children with her first husband, but lost custody of them. She struggled with her mental health, suffering from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and battling anorexia.

“Back in the 60s there were no sports psychologists, we weren’t versed in these things. We didn’t know about pressure in sport and what happens,” Tanner says. “I realized after the Olympics that what happened to me and how I changed that many years later was of course post-traumatic stress disorder. Back in the 60s, it wasn’t even a word.”

At a low point in 1988, Tanner was sleeping in her car in Vancouver, and contemplating suicide. It was around that time she met John Watt. The businessman and former lifeguard had experienced trauma in his life as well, including the death of both parents, and the suicide of his brother, whose body he found.

The pair began a journey of healing together. They travelled around North America, worked odd jobs including restoring classic cars and a failed sports memorabilia venture. She ended up coaching high school swimming on the opposite side of the continent in Maine, USA, for a time.

“It’s a journey of incredible soul searching, survival and recovery. It took me years for her to want to talk about some of the facts of what happened to her,” Watt says. “She never had any help and she didn’t know what to do.”

As he says these words, Tanner walks by and smiles.

“Now I’m much better,” she says.

“I see the joy in her eyes and that warms my heart,” Watt continues. “She has turned her life around so much.”

A 15 year-old Elaine Tanner with her 7 medals from 1966 Commonwealth Games. She remains the youngest recipient of the Lou Marsh Award for this achievement. Photo Credit: Canadian Press

Tanner’s name still belongs on a very short list of the best Canadian Olympians in the pool.

Tanner’s Commonwealth Games in 1966 in Kingston, Jamaica, set the bar so high. She won seven medals (Hutton won eight) and she was the first athlete in history to win four gold at any Commonwealth Games, the first major Games under Canada’s new flag. She set two world records there and followed it up with two more in a five-medal Pan American Games in 1967 in Winnipeg.

Tanner’s accomplishments have since earned the recognition they deserve:

The Order of Canada, the Lou Marsh Award (twice), Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, International Aquatic Hall of Fame, Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, Swimming Canada’s Circle of Excellence.

Yet it’s all a matter of perspective. The accolades don’t really matter to her. She’s worked hard to overcome being defined by something she did – or didn’t do – when she was very young, and being defined by outside validation in general. She’s lost track of her medals and world record certificates – some auctioned off, others in halls of fame.

“One day I said to John, ‘I don’t need this stuff anymore.’ It’s not me,” she says. “I accomplished what I needed to do, and the history of what I did will always be there. But I don’t need these things.”

More important to her are things like reconnecting with her two children, and now three grandchildren. She is an advocate for mental health and water safety, and has published a children’s book, Monkey Guy and the Cosmic Fairy.

The woman her coach Howard Firby once described as “one with the water” hasn’t swum in years, preferring cycling or a trip to the gym to stay fit. She’s not one to participate in sport galas or Hall of Fame dinners, but she has shared her advice with countless people she’s met along the way.

“I get far more joy out of sharing my story and helping others than if I’d won the gold medal,” says Tanner, who has detailed her story on two websites, elainetanner.ca and questbeyondgold.ca. “I would never trade any gold medal for the wisdom I have today, not in a million years. I’m still learning, and I’m still excited for today and tomorrow.”

Former teenage sensation Elaine Tanner with current star Penny Oleksiak at the Toronto Olympic celebration parade in 2016.

Tanner has reached out to current swimming stars in recent years. She sent words of support to Taylor Ruck, who eclipsed her record and won eight medals at this year’s Commonwealth Games. She met Penny Oleksiak at the Toronto parade after her Rio 2016 Olympic success and had an open letter to her published in MacLean’s last year where she encouraged Oleksiak to “just be you.”

“Now when I watch swimming in Canada, I’m so proud of our swimmers. I’ve seen the changes, and seen them come out and say ‘Yes, we can walk among the best in the world, we can be the best in the world.’ They truly believe in themselves and I get goosebumps when I see that,” Tanner says.

Ralph Hutton is a member of Swimming Canada's Circle of Excellence as well as the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame and International Swimming Hall of Fame (along with Elaine Tanner).

Hutton, who’s also in all the halls of fame, also embraces moving forward. Although he won 24 international medals, 23 of them are in a drawer in his office. He has been involved in swimming over the years, first through coaching, then later serving on the boards of Swim BC, Swimming Canada and Commonwealth Games Canada after becoming a Vancouver Police officer.

Hutton remembers as a child growing up in Ocean Falls, B.C., seeing a film strip of Australian swimmers Murray Rose and John Konrads being welcomed home with a parade.

“The town turned out, they closed all the schools and kids were out lining the streets,” he says. “I turned around to George Gate, who was my coach at the time, and said, ‘I want a parade like this and all the kids will love me because they’ll get out of school for the day.’

“He said, ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do. We better get started.’ That was a pivotal point in my whole swimming career,” says Hutton, who had moved to Campbell River at the time of the 1968 Games.

“I’m pleased to say (Campbell River) had a huge big parade, they called it Ralph Hutton Day and let the kids out of school.”

Tanner’s vision, meanwhile, didn’t quite turn out the way she wanted, but she’s OK with that now.

“To celebrate my own healing journey and help it along the way I decided a couple of years ago to actually mark my journey of letting go with a simple ceremony,” she says.

She wrote out all the things she could think of that hurt her in the past on a yellow helium balloon, and let it go.

“We can lose the baggage, but take the lesson and live with the wisdom,” she says.

“Travel light.”

It took Elaine decades to get there but now she's at peace with her experience and the wisdom she's gained.

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