Nearly two hours before the start of their synchronized diving competition Sunday, Jennifer Abel and Mélissa Citrini-Beaulieu strode onto the three-metre springboard to begin their warmup. For 90 minutes, they adjusted and readjusted the spring, and made dozens of practice dives, frequently consulting with coaches over smartphone video before returning to practise some more. Among the first to warm up, they were also among the last to leave.
“Mélissa and I are the kind of athletes that always ask for more, and are always willing to do everything to make sure that when we stand on the board we are at our best,” Abel said.
On Sunday, that is exactly what they accomplished, winning a silver medal that stands as a crowning achievement for Abel and marked an emotional Olympic debut for Citrini-Beaulieu. China’s Shi Tingmao and Wang Han took gold, extending a winning streak during which Chinese women have been undefeated in Olympic diving since 2004.
At 29, Abel is among Canada’s most celebrated pool veterans. She arrived in Tokyo for her fourth Olympics after a career of international competition studded with medals – but only one Olympic bronze, won in London. Five years ago, she left Rio de Janeiro distraught after a pair of fourth-place finishes.
On Sunday, Team Canada once again watched nervously as the pair fell to sixth place after their first two dives in what looked like an unwelcome echo of Abel’s performance in Rio, where Abel and Pamela Ware missed the bronze-medal spot by less than one point.
“Trust me, I did have some flashbacks,” said Mitch Geller, chief technical director of Swimming Canada. “We were just hoping that any errors we made were going to be smaller than what our competitors made. That’s really the heart and soul of diving.”
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Abel and Citrini-Beaulieu knew what they were capable of, after a string of silver and bronze finishes in international competitions since 2018. But in Tokyo, their ambition was to think about the diving, not the weight of expectation.
“We knew our first two dives weren’t necessarily the best,” Abel said. But “after Rio, I knew that one of the biggest mistakes I made was to focus on the medal.”
Besides, a diving competition doesn’t begin in earnest until the third dive, when difficulty restrictions are relaxed. They posted the second-best score of any team, rising to third place. By their well-executed fourth dive – a forward 3 1/2 somersault in a pike position that had previously been a source of trouble – the Canadian pair had risen to second place.
By the fifth dive, they emerged from the water and ran into each other’s arms, knowing what they had achieved before their scores were posted. Pandemic-distancing guidelines meant that, at the medal ceremony, they draped medals over each others’ necks.
“We wouldn’t have been there without each other,” Citrini-Beaulieu said, adding: “We did exactly what we wanted to do. And we didn’t let fear win on this.”
“We proved it to ourselves that we are the best team that Team Canada could have in diving,” Abel said.
That Canada’s best amounts to second in the world is, in women’s diving, taken as a given. China’s dominance is so complete that silver has become the gold standard for anyone else. For a country such as Canada to catch China’s divers will require being “maybe a little more creative, a little more innovative,” Geller said. But Canada, he said, has little desire to follow the example of a Chinese team that recruits athletes before kindergarten and subjects them to rigorous training regimes.
“All of their life is dedicated to this. Moreso than what we can possibly do,” he said. For Canada, “I wouldn’t want to do it exactly like that.”
At the same time, Abel and Citrini-Beaulieu credit their success to their mutual willingness to put in the hours. They have made a career of being first in the pool and last out.
If they felt a sense of vindication Sunday, it was in reaping the fruits of “the work that we have done for these five years,” Abel said.
Indeed, she has credited her hard-working partnership with Citrini-Beaulieu, 26, for her success after missing the podium in Rio, a finish that left Abel distraught, plagued by questions and doubts – an identity crisis for an athlete accustomed to winning medals, not returning home empty-handed.
Abel will still compete in the individual three-metre springboard event, the final of which is in a week.
But winning synchronized silver in Tokyo is something “her whole career has been aiming towards. This is the pinnacle. This is what it was all about,” Geller said.
“Because she knows that this is her last hurrah. And to get the medal here was the big thing. I think it was the pair of them.”