Christine Girard thought it was all happening again.
The four-year wait. The agony and sacrifice to get to the Olympic Games – which this time included training in her garage and without a coach. And, in the end, the ultimate heart-breaker of a fourth-place finish, which she endured in 2008 in Beijing.
Only this time, it didn’t happen.
Four years after missing the podium by three kilograms, Canada’s top weightlifter made history with the country’s first medal in the sport by a woman and first in nearly three decades on Tuesday.
To do so, the 27-year-old from Rouyn-Noranda, Que., had to battle from behind, as Girard sat in fourth at the halfway mark and needed a gargantuan lift of 133 kg in the clean and jerk to edge into third.
Her margin of victory was just one kilogram – a difference she held onto even after failing at 135 kg in her final attempt.
“It’s the best emotion ever,” Girard said. “When I missed my last lift I actually thought I was missing the medal again. I actually thought I was fourth again. So when my coach told me I was on the podium, I just started crying. I couldn’t believe I’d actually reached that goal.”
Along for the ride on the venue floor was Girard’s husband, Walter Bailey, who typically serves as a secondary coach but had to get special permission from Olympic organizers to be backstage with his wife.
That wasn’t granted until 9:30 p.m. local time the night before, but Girard was glad to have the company through a dramatic roller coaster of an event that saw her anywhere from first to fifth throughout.
The 63-kg field she was up against, meanwhile, was so tough gold medalist Maiya Maneza of Kazakhstan set an Olympic record of 245 kg between her two top lifts. Russia’s Svetlana Tsarukaeva was second with 237 kg, one more than Girard.
Girard’s finish four years ago was also front and centre, as the ExCel Centre’s announcer called it “the worst place to finish of all” right before she was to make a pivotal attempt.
Bailey said he felt it was only fitting she spent some time in fourth in the competition given so much of what happened in 2008 served as motivation for these Games.
“As she had time to reflect on Beijing, it just became motivation for her,” he said. “That was rough, but that’s what pushed her to continue. That’s what pushed her when she was training by herself in the garage when her body was sore and she had no coach. She knew she had a chance.”
Girardi and Bailey met while part of the Canadian junior national training program in 2005, with the pair lifting together even as they tracked towards their careers: she as a math teacher and he with the RCMP.
When Bailey was posted to Richmond, B.C., recently, Girardi had no qualms about going with him, even though it meant leaving behind her support network, losing considerable provincial funding and having to receive coaching via the internet and phone.
She took to lifting in the couple’s garage in White Rock, B.C., in a makeshift arrangement that allowed her to improve eight kilograms over the 228 she lifted in Beijing.
Girardi said she hoped her performance would inspire more women to take up the sport, something that has been her first love since she was a 10-year-old looking up to her weightlifting sisters in small-town Quebec.
Because she became the first Canadian woman to pull off the feat, this was one bronze medal that felt like gold.
“I grew up thinking it was practically impossible to win an Olympic medal,” she said in French. “I’m happy to tell you today that I’m really glad I listened to my heart and not my head because it is possible. I’m happy with myself, with my team, with everything I accomplished in my 17 years of training. This is the greatest moment of my life. I’m so happy.”
“Perseverance is the perfect word for her,” Bailey said. “A lesser person would have given up 100 times before she even got here.”