Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Olympic divers Heymans and Abel win bronze, Canada's first medal

Canada's Emilie Heymans and Jennifer Abel celebrate their bronze medals following the women's synchronized 3-metre springboard final at the Aquatic Centre at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London on Sunday, July 29, 2012.


We are not talking about an especially communicative face.

Émilie Heymans's range of expressions usually extends from mildly peeved all the way to blank, but on this day there was a major-league toothy grin, there were tears, there were red cheeks.

Penning a new entry in sports history will do that to you.

Story continues below advertisement

In addition to getting Canada off the schneid in the medal standing - with three-metre synchro partner Jennifer Abel, a 20-year-old for whom great things are promised - Heymans became the first female diver in history to win medals at four consecutive Summer Games. This one was a hard-earned bronze, which will go along with a silver from 2008, a bronze from 2004 and another silver from 2000.

Team Canada's deputy chef de mission Sylvie Bernier, who happens to be the last Canadian to win a springboard gold (in 1984), put the achievement in context.

"It's a first in diving history, not even the Chinese have been able to do it, this is quite exceptional, I'm floating on a cloud," said Bernier, who has known Heymans for nearly two decades.

When the big moment came, Heymans, who is 30, looked up at the scoreboard, then briefly frowned - perhaps at the fact she and Abel had failed to catch the United States for silver.

"She always wants to do better even though she got a good result," said coach Yihua Li, who started working with Heymans in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics.

But the luminous smile that started on Abel's face soon migrated to her partner and friend.

Afterward, Heymans admitted to shedding a few tears as she embraced Abel on the pool deck.

Story continues below advertisement

Asked when she would let the emotions of the occasion wash over her, she laughed and said "when I'm alone in my room in a little while."

It's been a long and circuitous journey for Heymans, who took up diving after she was pronounced too tall for competitive gymnastics. "I couldn't have ever imagined diving at four Games, or being in this position at 30, it's a lot of fun," said the former world champion.

And it might not have been possible had it not been for a dispute with former coach Michel Larouche, whom she split with in 2005 after he criticized her consistency and intensity.

A new association with Yihua paid Olympic dividends for Heymans, whose athletic pedigree is impeccable: mother Marie-Paule Von Eyck is a former Olympic fencer, father Eric was a soccer player.

In 2009 she decided to focus on springboard to spare her body from the rigours of tower diving, and later teamed with Abel.

There is every expectation that these will be Heymans's last Games, but there's the individual three-metre yet, and she isn't quite ready to close the door on catching Russian diving legend Dmitri Sautin, who won medals in five successive Olympics.

Story continues below advertisement

"I'm going to take the time to think about it and we'll see what I decide to do," she said.

Adversity and disappointment have haunted Heymans at past Olympic Games - in 2004 she was the reigning world champion in the 10-metre tower and let a medal slip away on the final dive - and there were some anxious moments on this day as well.

Heymans and Abel had concocted a list that opened with two compulsory dives, and after a strong first dive that left them just a few tenths behind eventual champion China, it all went sideways.

The two women were out of sync from the moment they stepped forward on the board, and the end result plunged them to fifth after the second of five rounds.

But they rallied on their last three dives as first the British, then the Italians faltered.

With the pressure on for the final dive - a tricky forward 2.5-somersault with a twist - the pair coolly hit it.

"A good dive, a pressure dive," Bernier said approvingly.

Heymans later said the mishap on the second dive was the result of being jostled by television camera operators as they performed their predive routine.

"I think it might have disoriented us a little bit in our own minds, so after that dive we decided to change our routine," said Heymans, who was born in Belgium but grew up in St. Lambert, Que. "We did our simulations elsewhere to have room and an environment where you're not looking at: 'Is this guy going to back up over me?' So I think that's what kind of popped our psychological bubble and took us out of our comfort zone."

It's a testament to the mental strength of the veteran and the relative newcomer - Abel made her Olympic debut in Beijing at 16 - that they could change their routine mid-stream and claw back the lost ground.

"We fought to the end, we made a small mistake in the second dive, but we stuck with it. You don't have time to get upset, you have to get on with it," said Abel, who grew up in Montreal.

If Heymans has had to learn to battle her nerves over her distinguished career, so too has Abel.

"I was so nervous, I was having nightmares, sleep has been hard for me, because I really, really wanted to be next to Émilie for this moment," she said.

With a report from James Christie

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to