LONDON – Sydney. Athens. Beijing. London. From 18 to 22 to 26 to 30 years old. With a partner, with another partner, without a partner and with yet a third different partner. From the platform to the springboard.
Different places, different ages, different circumstances and always the same result for Emilie Heymans: an Olympic medal.
It’s impressive enough that Heymans became the first female diver to medal in four consecutive Olympics, when she and Jennifer Abel won the bronze in the women’s synchronized three-metre springboard Sunday.
And it was important enough for Canada, which has set the ambitious goal of finishing in the top 12 of the medal count and will not have to agonize for days before getting on the board, as it has in the past.
"I’m electrified,'' said Mark Tewksbury, Canada’s chef de mission. "I’m a little shaky.''
But it’s even more impressive when you understand this history was not made in a straight line. It’s even more electrifying when you see an intense competitor like Heymans – normally stone-faced – smiling in relief that she had done it yet again.
"It’s awesome,'' she said. "We worked really hard for this, and we’re really glad we did well and it’s finally over.''
The first medal came 12 years ago – silver - in synchronized 10-metre platform, with partner Anne Montminy. The second medal came eight years ago – bronze, in the same event, but with a different partner, Blythe Hartley (who’s here as a television analyst). The third medal came four years ago – silver, in the individual 10-metre platform event.
Before the fourth medal could come Sunday, Heymans had to make some major adjustments in a sport that demands precision and gives you a shot at the big prize only once every four years.
She moved from the hard, stable platform high above the water to the bouncy springboard down below. She partnered with Abel, a talent who had competed in Beijing, but a teenager at the time and an opposite personality. Heymans is quiet, stoic; Abel is bubbly, pumped.
"It was probably not natural in the beginning,'' said Sylvie Bernier, who won gold in the individual three-meter springboard at Los Angeles in 1984 and is Canada’s assistant chef de mission in London. ''But they worked so hard and they got to know each other so well that now they’re just the perfect team''
Abel, who will turn 21 on August 23, said Heymans never tried to pull rank. From the beginning, Heymans insisted this would be a 50-50 partnership. The veteran would work as hard to adjust to the kid as the kid would work to adjust to the veteran.
Out of the five days a week they each trained in Montreal – both will compete in the individual three-metre springboard Saturday and Sunday – they reserved a full two days for each other and synchro. Abel’s coach, Cesar Henderson, said they spent even more time on synchro over the past three months.
"We have the same values,'' Heymans said. "We have the same goals. We really wanted to make it work. I think for us synchronized diving, we invest both a lot into it, and I think that’s why it worked well.''
As it turns out, they have the same quirks, too. Example: Both want to work quickly. Neither wants to stand on the board, waiting for the announcer to call their names, feeling the nerves.
"We love and hate the same things,'' Abel said.
Heymans was supposed to be the calming influence. She was supposed to steady Abel, reassuring her that though she was young, she was one of the best and she could do it. During a television interview after receiving the medal, Abel said she had a difficult time sleeping Saturday night – not because of nerves but because she had a nightmare that her dog attacked her mother, forcing her to kill the dog. She woke up in tears.
But it might have been the other way around Sunday.
Abel said the first dive was an OK-let’s-do-this dive. The Canadians scored well. They ranked second.
Then they started to feel the nerves. Actually, it was mostly Heymans, the veteran, who started to feel the nerves.
"She was like, ‘I don’t remember what I have to do with my arms when we walk,’ '' Abel said. "I was like, ‘Well, it’s back, front and back.’ And then we did our dive, our second dive, and it wasn’t that good.''
Heymans climbed out of the pool, sat on the edge and raised her hands to her face.
They ranked fifth. They had three dives left and climbed back up the board.
"I was like, ‘OK, look, we’ve got this,’ '' Abel said. " ‘Just try it. We will do our routine and focus on our stuff. We know what to do.’ ''
The Canadians weren’t perfect after that, but they were focused – even as a rumble of thunder boomed outside during one of their approaches. Helped by miscues by the Italian and Great Britain duos, they rose to fourth after three dives and third after four dives, and they stayed in third after their final dive – a forward 2 ½ somersault with a twist.
Heymans and Abel finished behind China’s Wu Minxia and He Zi, and the United States’ Abby Johnston and Kelci Bryant. Heymans had her fourth medal, Abel her first. As they took the podium, they held hands, raised their arms and smiled. In sync, of course.
Though Abel said she hadn’t fully realized what had happened yet, Heymans seemed to soak it up. She still has to dive in her individual event, and she might keep diving for another year. But she knows she will retire soon and will not compete in another Olympics, and she must have considered that this could be her last time on the podium, and that must have been bittersweet.
"Actually, sport is my entire life,'' Heymans said. "It’s what I’ve been doing since I’m six years old. I think I start training at least 20 hours a week when I was seven. It’s a really big part of my life. I think I’m going to carry this baggage for the rest of my life.''
All those medals are precious, and heavy.
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