Linda Boudreau’s 13-year-old daughter was crying when she came out of her first meeting with a high-performance synchronized swimming team in Quebec City.
The mother assumed it was because her talented youngster didn’t want to swim there. But that wasn’t the case.
“She was crying because the meeting had gone so well and she realized how much talent she had and how far she could go in the sport by moving away from home,” the French-speaking Boudreau said through an interpreter. “But she also suddenly realized the kind of sacrifices she was going to have to make.”
A devotion to the sport has fuelled Marie-Pier Boudreau-Gagnon’s journey, starting as a 13-year-old who left her family home in the small city of Rivière-du-Loup, Que., to become a high-performance synchronized swimmer.
Now headed to her third Olympics at 29, she has gone from a broken-hearted alternate watching from the stands at the 2004 Athens Games to the veteran leader of the 2012 team that is poised to make a push onto the podium in London. The Games begin July 26.
Boudreau-Gagnon’s mother looks back on her daughter’s childhood, telling stories of a little girl who failed her first swim test and would keep a towel pressed to her eyes in the shower because she hated getting her face wet. Boudreau-Gagnon attempted many sports before falling in love with synchronized swimming after trying it at 7.
“Her sisters probably had more talent in synchro than she did back then,” Boudreau said. “But they didn’t pursue it or have the love and determination for it that she did.”
As she trained more seriously over the next several years, she won the Quebec Games and went to Canadian championships. A competitive team from Montreal invited her to compete with them in Italy, which fuelled her passion for international competition.
“I met her at the airport when she got home, and she had gifts from Egyptian friends she made at the competition, and she spoke about how much she loved synchro and wanted to do high performance,” Boudreau said. “I didn’t want her moving to Montreal – that was too far from home for a young girl.”
The family compromised and sent her to Quebec City. It was a little closer to home and she could live with an aunt. She attended the elite sports school École Cardinal-Roy, where she could train in the pool four hours a day. She missed her family and went home on a bus every chance she could, but she thrived in the program. After a year, she joined the junior national team in Montreal.
The young teen who spoke only French found herself travelling Canada and the world on a team of both English and French girls, so she worked hard to learn English. By 2002, she made the senior national team and then, by 21, was being considered for the Olympic team to compete in Athens. She soon learned she would go to Greece as an alternate and would not compete.
“When I found out, I wanted to quit. I just wanted to go study instead,” Boudreau-Gagnon said. “But I talked to [former Canadian short-track speed skater] Jean-François Monette about it, which changed my mind. He said, ‘You’ll still be smart in 10 years, but you won’t always be able to be an Olympic synchronized swimmer.’”
Sticking with the sport paid off quickly for Boudreau-Gagnon after Athens.
One year later, she was chosen as Canada’s soloist and has since been a two-time Commonwealth Games champion in the discipline. She also become a stalwart of Canada’s duet, winning medals at both the Commonwealth and Pan American Games, particularly as part of the heavy metal 2011 Metallica routine that shook up the easy-listening ways of synchro. She was also a key member of the team that places fourth at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, just shy of the podium.
“She is very extroverted and so helpful for the other swimmers,” Synchro Canada head coach Julie Sauvé said. “She is always sharing her techniques – not everyone would do that for other athletes. Her experience is so valuable.”
While Boudreau-Gagnon doesn’t know when she will retire from the sport, she expects 2012 to be her last Olympics. She wants Canada’s secretive, better-than-ever choreography in the team and duet events to have eyes popping in London when she gets her last shot at an Olympic medal.
“Our circus-themed free team routine in particular will be one of the greatest highlights of my whole career,” Boudreau-Gagnon said. “I love the team part of synchro. The achievements with these girls have kept me going for all of these years.”