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Canada’s Abel dives headlong into medal pursuit

Canadian diver Jennifer Abel practices at the aquatic centre at Olympic Park on Thursday.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The miniature Team Canada boxing gloves dangle from a strap on her backpack, which is of the bulky, oversized type swimmers and divers tend to haul around at competitions.

The message is blunt: This is a fight, and you will take it to the end.

The backpack and the memento belong to Canada's Jennifer Abel, an effervescent three-metre springboard specialist from Montreal who is embarking on her second Olympics.

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She competed in Beijing four years ago at the ripe old age of 16, and missed out on her objective: making the final in the individual event.

That goal is a far too modest one this time around.

"I don't want it to seem like I'm thinking too far ahead, but this time just making the final won't be enough," she said in a recent interview. "I want to give myself a chance to do something great."

Abel, who hasn't missed the podium in World Cup competitions this season, is diving in two events in London, the individual three-metre event next weekend, and Sunday's synchro pairs springboard, with partner Emilie Heymans.

The pair won silver at the most recent Worlds, and Abel added a bronze in the individual competition.

The list of Canadian athletes who have a chance to win multiple medals at this summer's Games is vanishingly small – no one should be surprised if a grinning 20-year-old from St. Leonard is carrying the Maple Leaf at the closing ceremonies.

Even if Abel isn't dubbed Canada's athlete of the Olympics, she fully expects to be better known at home in two weeks than she is today.

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"I'm not really focused on winning a medal, I just want to have my best possible performance. That's all," she said.

When asked at a practice session this week if she'd take any pride in helping Heymans win a fourth straight medal, she produced her typical dazzling grin.

The stakes aren't just personal.

If Abel is a diver today, it's mostly thanks to her 24-year-old brother, Andy, the first in the family to take up the sport and a former national-level diver.

It was because of her big brother, with whom she is very close, that Abel first decided to try diving at age four.

"People often ask me if I have an idol, and I do: my brother. If he hadn't gotten into to diving, I'm sure I wouldn't have," she said.

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It is Andy Abel who gave the boxing gloves to his kid sister; it's not a stretch to say he's her biggest fan, the elder sibling has a tattoo of his sister diving on his forearm.

"We talk all the time, he can't be at the Olympics this time around, but we're going to be talking and Skyping every day," she said.

And if she were to win her first career Olympic medal this weekend?

"He'll be the first person I'm going to call," she said.

Abel won't need a phone to talk to her parents, who are attending the event in person – and this is a momentous event for the clan in more ways than one.

"It's the first time they've taken a trip alone together in 30 years of marriage. I think it was about time," giggled Abel.

At the Athletes' Village, Abel is rooming with close friend Meaghan Benfeito, a tower diver.

The two used to room together on the road as juniors – there was a brief interruption when Benfeito, who is two years older, made the senior national team.

The pair are startlingly alike – quick to laugh, outgoing, disconcertingly happy.

One of the first things they did was to pick up some mini-scooters to push their way around the Olympic Park.

"We're a lot alike," said Benfeito. "She's really easygoing, and chatty, and she likes to go to bed late, so I don't keep her up like I do the other girls."

Or as Abel put it: "There are no surprises, we have a lot of fun."

Presumably, Abel will count on the closeness of her relationship with Benfeito as much as she does on the one with her brother.

She has all the support she needs going into what could be the signature moment of her young life.

The past four years have been an education for the roommates, who both made their Olympic bow in Beijing.

Unlike last time around, Abel is established on the Olympic circuit, and she's benefited from the experience.

Until she reached a podium under the glaring lights of the World Championship stage, she admits, it was a stressful experience to match wits against the finest divers on the planet.

At the 2011 event in Shanghai, she was competing not only for herself, but also for a quota spot for Canada, and she was doing so on the heels of a middling World Cup campaign.

"I had a discussion with [coach] Arturo [Miranda] right around that time, I was struggling a lot with the stress of that competition. But I learned how to talk to myself, what to say in those moments, and since then it's gone well," she said. "I've learned that no one else can preach about what it is you have to do, you have to deal with it in your own head."

The World Championship medal also drawn unexpected – and welcome – notice in circumstances she wouldn't have predicted..

"I had a 12-year-old little girl come up to me as I was getting into my car, she was a little nervous and asked if I was Jennifer the diver. It was so cute," she said.

If Abel performs as she wishes and expects, that will have been the tip of a considerable iceberg.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More


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