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Elaine Tanner of Vancouver heads for a world record in the 220-yard medley in July, 1966. She swam the distance in 2:33.3 during a time trial. The previous listed record was 2:33.6. (The Canadian Press)

Elaine Tanner of Vancouver heads for a world record in the 220-yard medley in July, 1966. She swam the distance in 2:33.3 during a time trial. The previous listed record was 2:33.6.

(The Canadian Press)

Roy MacGregor

No shame in silver medal, Tanner tells Team Canada Add to ...

The contrast was startling.

Tuesday night, in the mixed zone following the final game of the women’s world hockey championship, stood 21-year-old Amanda Kessel, hero of the victorious Team USA, eyes sparkling and teeth glinting as bright as the gold medal hanging so proudly around her neck.

On one side of Kessel stood Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser, looking ashen as she went over all that had gone so wrong this week in Ottawa. On the other side stood Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados, also looking as if life itself had been taken from her as she spoke for all her teammates.

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“It sucks.”

But it was not just the emotion and the words that set the players apart. It was something else, something telling.

Not one of the Canadian players, all still in uniform, was wearing her silver medal.

Three time zones west, in the cafeteria of a bowling alley under Sandcastle Fitness in White Rock, B.C., Elaine Tanner sat reliving her life.

Tanner and her husband, John Watt, had worked out and decided to stay for a bite to eat. They had ordered chicken burgers and fries, and while waiting, turned to face a big-screen television. The gold-medal game was just finished, 3-2 for Team USA over Team Canada. The Americans were screaming and leaping against each other. The Canadian women stood in shock, many in tears, all of them seemingly alone and devastated.

“Recognize that look?” Watt said to Tanner.

Mighty Mouse nodded.

It was once her look. She was back in 1968. Mexico, the Olympic Summer Games. She was standing on the podium, convinced her world was over, never for a moment imagining that before the coming spiral bottomed out, she would be dealing with mental illness and poverty, so down and out she would be living on the mean streets of Vancouver. Night would find her sleeping in an old station wagon, her worldly possessions in the back, her three Olympic medals hidden in a sewing basket that had belonged to her grandmother.

She hadn’t won silver; she had lost gold.

Elaine Tanner was only 17 in 1968. As Mighty Mouse, the tiny swimmer had become the darling of the Canadian media at the previous Commonwealth Games, when she became the first woman to win four gold medals and was named the country’s youngest ever athlete of the year. At the Pan American Games leading into the Mexico City Olympics, she broke two world records and won two gold and three silver medals. She held five world records at one point and was considered a shoo-in to win both the 100-metre and 200-metre backstroke in Mexico.

She returned with a remarkable three of the five medals Canada won at those Summer Games, two silver and a bronze, but no gold. Before the year was out, she had retired, never to compete again.

The attention that had so built her up, quickly tore her down. She went from the podium to an interview room where all the questions seemed to scream “Loser!”.

“I was absolutely devastated,” she says, “and convinced that I had not only let myself down but my entire country as well. I soon fell victim to those very words and it took over three decades to crawl my way back up again.”

Mighty Mouse had to come to terms with what Elaine Tanner today calls “the curse of expectations.” She had won silver, a “fingernail” behind American Kaye Hall. But there was to be no celebration, nothing but questions: What went wrong?

Tanner fell into deep depressions. She became estranged from her immediate family, was divorced from a first husband, and lost custody of her little girl and boy. Before she met Watt – who was going through his own struggles, and the two, together, began a long struggle back to mental and physical well-being – she had reached a point where she was no longer recognizable, even to herself.

Expectations can sometimes have a strange alchemic effect on silver when it comes to sport. Elaine Tanner watched as Olympic silver medals were cheered and even became iconic for Canada when Greg Joy took silver in the high jump in Montreal in 1976 and when Elizabeth Manley won silver in figure skating in Calgary in 1988.

“There were no such expectations for them,” Tanner says, “so they were celebrated for silver, and still are.”

She cringed in 1996 when, during the Atlanta Summer Games, Nike put up billboards saying: “You don’t win silver – you lose gold.”

“That was terrible,” she says of the Nike campaign. “What does that teach our kids? It’s win or nothing. We lose the intrinsic value of trying.

“Sometimes you learn more if you lose.”

In retrospect, Tanner believes she was so badly crushed because there were no sports psychologists in her day and, for a multitude of confusing reasons, she and her immediate family could not deal with the emotional fallout.

“When you’re expected to win gold,” she says, “any other colour is disappointing.”

In her opinion, the “gold or nothing” mantra should be “permanently put out to pasture. The unfortunate thing is, the players have come to use it themselves.

“We need to celebrate a valiant effort, too,” Tanner says. “We need to teach our kids that you go out and try your best. They have to learn to lose with grace. And they have to know they can always do better next time.

“It’s nice to win. I strove to win. I wanted to be the best. But life is a long journey, and sometimes the best lessons are the ones you take from losing.

“To lose is difficult, but to lose with grace is even harder.”

Tanner says the pressure was so much on her back in 1968 that she began to look at victory in the pool as her “job description,” and she was failing at the job the country, her family and herself had assigned.

“It’s a performance only,” she says of competing. “It’s not you as a person. Our performance is not us. In ’68 I couldn’t separate my performance in the Olympics from who I was as a person. I equated myself personally as a loser.

“That terrible seed becomes implanted in your subconscious. I internalized the fact that I had lost and that began the downward spiral.”

Family estrangement, broken marriage, financial failure, anorexia, depression, panic attacks … down, down, down until, by 1988, she was also homeless. Then she met Watt and the two began a nomadic North American odyssey that involved buying and rebuilding cars, and Tanner even coaching swimming at a Maine high school for a while. They returned to Canada, where they live near Vancouver now and are involved in helping the homeless.

Tanner also tries to spread her message about unrealistic expectations through two websites she has created - elainetanner.ca and Questbeyondgold.ca -  and  she also holds a certificate in Holistic Counseling. Tanner and Watt work as passionate advocates of water safety and drowning prevention.

Nothing is perfect, but life has so vastly improved for Elaine Tanner that she can look back on what became of Mighty Mouse and deal with it, whereas for years she could not.

As she says: “Going through what I did made me a stronger and better person.”

The shame is that she had to go through it.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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