It’s a word that’s been worn smooth from constant invocation. But for the competitors at the London Olympics, “sacrifice” really is more than a boilerplate expression.
Take Canadian fencer Sherraine Schalm, who is, by any measure, a wildly successful practitioner of her sport.
She’s been to four Olympics, has won innumerable World Cup medals, and has come within one scoring thrust from the tip of a blunted épée of winning a world championship.
And she’s exhausted herself both physically and financially to do it.
On Monday, Schalm fenced gamely in the individual épée, but ultimately lost her first match against South Korea’s Shin A-lam. (Shin went on to lose in the bronze-medal match.)
“I’m disappointed for sure … nobody comes here expecting to lose, so of course I’m disappointed. But I really feel I did everything I could; driving 900 kilometres once per week to go to training in Budapest from Italy, becoming bankrupt because our funding is gone. The hardest thing is to be disappointed and bankrupt,” the Canadian said with a laugh. “It’s a good thing I have a husband, I know that sounds really 1950s, but that’s the way it is.”
Disappointed athletes far outnumber the medal-winners at any Olympics, which, after all, are the best – and often only – chance for athletes from obscure sports to step into the limelight.
An early exit, as was also the case Monday for Canadian archer Crispin Duenas, who finished eighth in the initial ranking round before quickly falling in the round of 32, makes it all the more discouraging.
But Schalm isn’t complaining about her lot in life – far from it.
“This sounds really corny when you hear things like ‘it’s a calling.’ I felt like it really was … I just did my best, I can’t be much harder on myself than to say I wish I’d fenced smarter and more disciplined, but that was the most I had at that moment. That’s all,” she said.
The 37-year-old, who grew up in Brooks, Alta., but moved to Ottawa as a teenager to work with renowned fencing coach Manuel Guittet, was somewhat-less serene after bowing out in Beijing four years ago.
At that point, she was one of the strong medal favourites, and despite posting a ninth – the best finish by a Canadian in Olympic fencing history – Schalm’s emotions took over.
She screamed obscenities at the Hungarian team; she had just been defeated by a former training partner from the country.
(Fencing lends itself to dramatics: Shin staged a lengthy sit-in Monday, after losing her semi-final against 2008 Olympic champion, Britta Heidemann of Germany. Heidemann took home silver this time, losing in overtime to Yana Shemyakina of Ukraine.)
It was a low moment for Schalm, who felt compelled to apologize to her country both for the outburst and for losing – and who was set upon as an example of poor sportsmanship by elements of the blogosphere.
No apologies are required this time around.
“In Beijing, it was harder for me because I had a lot of baggage with the training in Hungary,” said Schalm, who was upset at the time because the Hungarians had reneged on an invitation to let her train with their team.
“I was super, super embarrassed to go back to my hometown after that.”
All athletes feel immense pressure at the Olympics, all have tasted defeat, how they deal with both is the true measure.
On this occasion, Schalm handled her exit with considerable grace – and a tear or two.
But the disappointment of losing early in what will surely be her last Olympics – Schalm and her husband, Matteo Ortolino, have a daughter and would like to expand their family – couldn’t distract her from her plan to have “a nice pint of warm beer” with her husband.
“It’ll be fine. Come on. It’s a sport, it’s a game. This is the first time where I feel I don’t have any pressure from anybody. I didn’t have [Own the Podium] funding, I didn’t have CanFund, I didn’t have anything this year. I felt responsible only to myself and the people immediately training me. And I gave everything,” she said.
“I’m disappointed because it’s fun to win, but it’s a game. I have a lovely life.”
That life includes 18-month-old Gaia – the family spends most of its time in the Veronese lakeside village of Pischiera del Garda or in Toronto.
In preparation for London, Schalm decided the best way to reconcile her sport and family demands was simply to pack her toddler along to practice sessions – she watched from a playpen in the gymnasium.
“It was hard in terms of logistics, but before I was a mother I always had a feeling like I could have done more … it was really, really a negative place. And then when I had the baby, I realized I’m doing as much as I can, I physically can’t do more,” she said.
Schalm isn’t sure what the future will hold; she’s written one book, Running with Swords, and is in the process of writing another lighthearted memoir, So You Wanna Marry an Italian?! 50 Things You Need to Know First!
And in the meantime, Schalm can play her new accordion (“Cheesy, isn’t it?” she said) and spend more time with a bubbly daughter for whom an Olympic medal would be little more than something to chew on.
Not that there isn’t a little parental hope for a future in fencing.
“She can say 10 words, and one of them is épée. She does a little warm-up with me, arm circles, and she can do a tiny little lunge,” Schalm said. “We have little plastic épées and she can hit the stomach and the toe, it’s really cute.”
Just before she disappeared around a partition at the fencing venue, Schalm mused about a future coaching young girls – few women coach the sport.
One senses she already has her first pupil.