Building a better Olympian mind – Part 2

It would be a stretch to call Emilie Heymans emotional.

Whatever sorrow, stress, or joy the Brossard, Que., diver feels is normally kept well under wraps. But inBeijing 2008 Olympics the 10-m platform competition in Athens, when she launched into her final dive with a gold medal in her grasp, and surfaced in fourth place, seven points off the podium, the facade cracked. Eyes downcast, she stood before a thicket of reporters and delivered a brutal self-assessment. “I choked,” she said.

In Beijing, the icily cool Heymans was back, barely cracking a smile, even as she stood on the podium to receive her silver. Performing before a raucous and largely local crowd at the Water Cube–Chinese divers have long dominated the international scene–the 27-year-old made no concessions to the pressure.

And this time, with everything on the line, Heymans delivered an almost flawless fifth and final dive, scoring 88.00 points for an inward 3 1/2 somersault, and rising to the top of the leader board. It was only a perfect dive by China’s Chen Ruolin–earning four 10s from the judges and 100.30 points–that snatched away the gold.

Heymans wasn’t keen to talk about the difference between losing Athens gold and winning Beijing silver.

“I’ve grown a lot since then, a lot of things have changed. I was really able to stay focused on what I had to do,” was about as close as she came. But her coaches repeatedly referenced the “rebuilding” that was needed to salvage not only her self-esteem, but her love of the sport. “I know there was a lot of soul searching and lot of wondering if she was going to keep at it,” says Mitch Geller, the high-performance director of Diving Canada. “And I think we were a little fortunate.

If Athens had paid off, I’m not sure we would have seen her here.” It’s only an hour after that last dive, when a reporter points out to Heymans that she has joined an elite club, as one of only five Canadians to reach the podium in three consecutive Summer Games (she earned synchro 10-m diving silver in Sydney, and a three-metre synchro bronze in Athens) that the mask slips. “Everybody will know your name” he insists. “Maybe” she replies with a giggle.

Two nights before, it had been Alexandre Despatie’s turn to defy the odds. In 2004, he was thought to have a shot at three medals, but emerged with just one, a silver in the three-metre springboard. The end result was the same in Beijing–he finished 40 points behind China’s He Chong, capturing another springboard second–but this time there was an air of triumph rather than disappointment. This past spring, Despatie broke his foot in a poolside accident. The injury kept him away from the diving board for seven weeks, and he missed all of the regular pre-Olympic tune-up competitions. “My silver medal is gold to me, after all of the bad things that happened” he says. “I dove for me.”