Larry Lemieux selflessly abadons race to rescue sailors and wins rarest medal of them all

One of Canada’s most memorable Olympic moments involves a medal, but not the gold, silver or bronze traditionally given out to top performers.

Larry Lemieux could have picked up one of those in the sailing competition at the 1988 Seoul Games, as he overcame tough 35-knot winds and was in position to claim a silver medal in the Finn-class competition. Lemieux saw a capsized boat on the adjacent 470-class course, though, with injured Singapore sailors Shaw Her Siew and Joseph Chan in trouble, and he abandoned his race to go help them.

That nullified his shot at the traditional medals, but it resulted in him earning the even-rarer Pierre de Coubertin Medal, and it made his story a far more important tale, one that illustrates that athletic victory alone isn’t everything.

Siew and Chan were truly in dire straits. Their boat had capsized 32 kilometres off the coast of Pusan, and while Siew was clinging desperately to the centreboard, Chan was being swept further and further away by the high waves. Lemieux could have carried on and tried to pick up gold himself, but as he later told The Edmonton Journal, his instincts instructed him to go to the other sailors’ aid.

“The first rule of sailing is, you see someone in trouble, you help him,” Lemieux said. “My thought process was: do they really need help because a lot of times you are able to save yourself. But I couldn't understand if they were saying yes or no. I just had to go. If I went to them and they didn't really need help, c’est la vie. If I didn't go, it would be something you would regret for the rest of your life. But I wasn't thinking that at the time. It's only now, in retrospect, you think that way. At the time, you just go.”

Even once he’d made the decision, rescuing the stranded sailors wasn’t easy. There were four-metre waves crashing all around Lemieux’s boat, and the current was going against the wind, making the task even more difficult. Lemieux had to sail downwind to reach Chan’s position, and wound up taking on a lot of water himself in the process. Using all his sailing skill, though, Lemieux managed to keep his own boat from capsizing, and he plucked Chan out of the water before heading back to help Siew. Following that, he managed to hold his small craft steady against the wind until a Korean Navy boat arrived to pick the stranded sailors up. After helping Siew and Chan, Lemieux returned to his race and finished 21st out of a field of 32. As he told the Journal, he has no regrets, though, especially considering the danger Chan was in.

“He would have been lost at sea. Because the waves were so high you couldn't see the big, orange course markers when you were between troughs. So looking for someone's head would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack. … I could have won gold. But, in the same circumstances, I would do what I did again.”

Lemieux may not have earned gold, but he was recognized with an even-rarer award. At the sailing medal ceremony, International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Saramanch gave him the Pierre de Coubertin Medal, named in honour of the IOC founder and father of the modern Olympics. That award, given to athletes who demonstrate the true spirit of sportsmanship, has only been handed out 10 times over the years, and Lemieux remains the only Canadian to win it. If he’d continued on without stopping to help, he might have picked up a place on the medal stand, but his decision to abandon personal sporting glory to aid fellow competitors made him a far bigger legend.

Lemieux accomplished plenty beyond his rescue effort, of course. He also competed for Canada in the Star class at the 1984 Olympics, and although he didn’t make it back to the Olympics following 1988, he picked up a silver medal at the 1990 world championships, earned gold in the Finn class at the European championships (the first Canadian to do so) and picked up a Pan-Am Games gold in 1991. Still, it’s the race where he gave up victory to help others that stands out most.

It’s notable that Lemieux’s decision came at the same Olympics where Ben Johnson earned gold and set a world record in the 100-metre dash with a mind-blowing time of 9.79 seconds, but was subsequently disqualified after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. If Johnson’s record and subsequent drug test represented athletic glory at the cost of personal shame, Lemieux’s choice to give up a shot at a medal to save others is the polar opposite. Lemieux never stood atop an Olympic podium, but his story is one Canadians can feel a lot better about today, and it suggests that winning isn’t always the highest goal.