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Rosie MacLennan competes in final Friday for women's trampoline at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo. MacLennan missed the podium in the event, where she won gold in 2012 and 2016.

Melissa Tait / The Globe and Mail

Things started out okay.

Megu Uyama floated into the mixed zone after trampolining on Friday. It had been a rough day for the 25-year-old Japanese world trampolining champion. You only get one chance to lay down a score in this discipline. Uyama hadn’t taken it. She placed fifth.

Still, she was strong to begin with. Chin up, eyes forward, clear voice. Since you couldn’t understand what she was saying, your attention drifted. But then the voice started to rise and crack and everyone’s attention drifted back.

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Uyama had begun to cry. Then she cried harder. By the end, she was in floods of tears and could not seem to stop herself from talking. This went on past the point when people had begun to look away.

Asked what Uyama was saying at such great length, one of the two local journalists on hand to record this display of misery said, “She was apologizing to Japan.”

Megu Uyama of Japan reacts after her routine.

Mike Blake/Reuters

Just then Rosie MacLennan showed up in her bare feet, schlepping all her gear, and said, “Hi!”

Superficially, MacLennan had nearly as bad a day as Uyama. She was the double-defending gold medallist in this event. Six weeks ago, she was in a walking cast after a training injury. She’d had to reimagine her routines and come in cold. Just getting here was a triumph of the will.

Then she’d finished in fourth place. That’s what cynics used to call the “Canadian bronze.”

But MacLennan, 32, was not gutted. She wasn’t happy, either. But minutes after what some people would see as a life-defining disappointment, she had already recalibrated her emotional radar and was focusing on other things. Like, how great it was for her opponents who had won medals and how they must feel right now; or how much she was looking forward to flying home and seeing family with whom she hasn’t been in the same room in a year.

These are the things people expect you to say after you’ve come fourth at the Olympics, but you can tell when it’s an acting job. This wasn’t that.

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MacLennan and coach Dave Ross sit after her routine.

Melissa Tait / The Globe and Mail

Famously, MacLennan has had the same coach for 20 years, Dave Ross. Ross is renowned as a mad scientist of gymnastics.

(He spent a good while on Friday explaining how he had changed MacLennan’s path across the trampoline from back and forth to forth, back, back and forth, back … I can’t even tell you. It was like listening to a theoretical physicist explain the nuts and bolts of time travel, but harder to follow.)

Ross told a story about losing.

Years ago, a young athlete came to his house. He spotted a shelf of Ross’s sports psychology books. “Oh, head books! Cool,” he apparently said, pulling one off the shelf.

He flipped randomly to a Vince Lombardi quote – “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” He said, “Right on,” closed the book and carried on.

“He doesn’t know that it’s in a chapter about how adults make sport too serious for children and ruin them …,” Ross said. “You can’t put those types of values on people and expect that there’s no damage.”

MacLennan, 32, arrived at the final weeks after a training injury that forced her to rethink her routine.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

That damage has been a running, maybe even the overarching, theme of this Olympics. It is the crux of the Simone Biles situation. The core problem of creating an Olympian – how do you make someone the very best, without also hinging their entire sense of self-worth on that goal? And is it morally defensible to do so knowing that only one person is walking out the arena with that self-worth realized? We used to call this grit. Now, at this level, people are starting to call it abuse.

MacLennan is, in part, the answer. She has been an elite athlete her entire adult life. She’s been to four Olympics. She is an enormous star at her discipline. And she is also a normal person who loses and doesn’t feel like a loser.

How is that done? Part of it is obviously age and experience. Another part is knowing you can go home and wear your two Olympic gold medals around the house while you eat a bowl of cereal, just to do it.

But the important part, according to MacLennan, is understanding your rationale for devoting your life to this work.

She could have gone out on top after London or Rio. She just gave five more years to this and it hadn’t worked out. Any regrets?

“Absolutely not,” MacLennan said, with the sort of emphasis that suggested she’d thought about this many times before Friday. “Obviously, we’re always trying to push ourselves to be the best. Obviously, I really did want to come out here and win a medal for Canada. But at the end of the day, my experience of sport – there’s so much depth to it. There’s so much I’ve learned through sport that I can take with me through the rest of my life. I wouldn’t trade a second of it.”

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MacLennan says she has no regrets about how she's pursued a third gold over the past five years.

Melissa Tait / The Globe and Mail

MacLennan has led a charmed Olympic life, but not a charmed athletic one. She’s had terrible injuries. She suffered concussions that, like Biles here, left her “terrified” to be in the air. She’s been through the athletic wars.

And it is those wars that have formed her, just as much as gold medals.

I’m not sure you can teach that sort of perspective. Maybe you have to be born with a predilection for it or, more likely, surrounded by people from a young age who reinforce it.

It is a depressing truth that athletes who are driven are more likely to succeed at the elite level than ones who are encouraged. As long as they are giving out medals made of gold, someone will be willing to go to any lengths to get one.

Only a fortunate few will get the entire breadth of possibilities – reaching the peak, and still feeling the “depth” (great word) – of the sporting life. If you could describe a perfect athletic life, that would probably be it. And in order to be full, it would have to include a fair share of disappointment.

After five years of effort, Rosie MacLennan came to Tokyo and lost out on a medal by less than one third of one point. That’s a single jump whose launch point you misjudged in mid-air by centimetres. That is something a lot of people might never let go of.

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So why does it feel as if of all the competitors who competed all across the Olympic disciplines on Friday, none of them is winning more than MacLennan?


video guide

Canada’s latest medal moments

Canada closed out its rowing campaign at the Tokyo Olympics with gold in the women’s eight, adding to a bronze won in women’s pairs. In the pool, Penny Oleksiak missed the podium by a thin margin. The Globe and Mail

Visual guide

How Olympic gymnastic events work

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

JULY

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

Artistic

Rhythmic

Trampoline

AUGUST

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Artistic

Rhythmic

Trampoline

One of the world’s most exciting, dynamic and daring sports, gymnastics tests athletes’ balance, strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, and endurance. Acrobatic feats such as high-flying tumbles, somersaults, flips, spins and handstands are performed on special apparatus.

RHYTHMIC

Rhythmic gymnasts possess strength, speed, skill, flexibility and are capable of profound and expressive beauty. Gymnasts are scored on the artistry of their performances, which are set to music, and the skill with which they execute difficult manoeuvres with handheld apparatus.

Individual

Group

Women

Equipment

Ribbon

Clubs

Bal

Hoop

ARTISTIC

Athletes perform short routines and are judged on the difficulty and execution of each performance.

Men

Women

Individual

Team

Beam

Floor

Exercise

Horizontal

Bars

Parallel

Bars

Pommel

Horse

Rings

Uneven

Bars

Vault

TRAMPOLINE

Gymnasts spring to heights of up to 10 m and perform a series of short routines containing a variety ovf twists, bounces and somersaults.

Individual

Men

Women

The trampoline itself consists of a rectangular ‘bed’ made from a woven synthetic fabric and measuring 4.28 m x 2.14 m. The bed is attached to a frame with steel springs so that its recoil action propels performers high into the air.

SOURCE: REUTERS

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

JULY

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

Artistic

Rhythmic

Trampoline

AUGUST

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Artistic

Rhythmic

Trampoline

One of the world’s most exciting, dynamic and daring sports, gymnastics tests athletes’ balance, strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, and endurance. Acrobatic feats such as high-flying tumbles, somersaults, flips, spins and handstands are performed on special apparatus.

RHYTHMIC

Rhythmic gymnasts possess strength, speed, skill, flexibility and are capable of profound and expressive beauty. Gymnasts are scored on the artistry of their performances, which are set to music, and the skill with which they execute difficult manoeuvres with handheld apparatus.

Individual

Group

Women

Equipment

Ribbon

Clubs

Bal

Hoop

ARTISTIC

Athletes perform short routines and are judged on the difficulty and execution of each performance.

Individual

Team

Beam

Floor

Exercise

Horizontal

Bars

Men

Women

Parallel

Bars

Pommel

Horse

Rings

Uneven

Bars

Vault

Men

Women

TRAMPOLINE

Gymnasts spring to heights of up to 10 m and perform a series of short routines containing a variety ovf twists, bounces and somersaults.

Individual

Men

Women

The trampoline itself consists of a rectangular ‘bed’ made from a woven synthetic fabric and measuring 4.28 m x 2.14 m. The bed is attached to a frame with steel springs so that its recoil action propels performers high into the air.

SOURCE: REUTERS

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

JULY

AUGUST

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Artistic

Rhythmic

Trampoline

One of the world’s most exciting, dynamic and daring sports, gymnastics tests athletes’ balance, strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, and endurance. Acrobatic feats such as high-flying tumbles, somersaults, flips, spins and handstands are performed on special apparatus.

RHYTHMIC

Rhythmic gymnasts possess strength, speed, skill, flexibility and are capable of profound and expressive beauty. Gymnasts are scored on the artistry of their performances, which are set to music, and the skill with which they execute difficult manoeuvres with handheld apparatus.

Individual

Group

Women

Equipment

Ribbon

Ball

Clubs

Hoop

ARTISTIC

Athletes perform short routines and are judged on the difficulty and execution of each performance.

Individual

Team

Beam

Floor

Exercise

Horizontal

Bars

Men

Women

Parallel

Bars

Pommel

Horse

Rings

Uneven

Bars

Vault

Men

Women

TRAMPOLINE

Gymnasts spring to heights of up to 10 m and perform a series of short routines containing a variety ovf twists, bounces and somersaults.

Individual

Men

Women

The trampoline itself consists of a rectangular ‘bed’ made from a woven synthetic fabric and measuring 4.28 m x 2.14 m. The bed is attached to a frame with steel springs so that its recoil action propels performers high into the air.

SOURCE: REUTERS

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