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Synchro coach pushes herself, team to limit

Inductee Julie Sauve (centre) talks about what the honour means to her as the 2006 inductees to Canada's Sports Hall of Fame gather for a press conference before the ceremony in Toronto, Nov. 1. 2006.

Dave Chidley/CP

Julie Sauvé has heard the all-too-familiar question throughout her 30-plus years as Canada's synchronized swimming coach: "Are you sure we can do that?"

The innovative, trend setter scours the synchro rules and usually finds her ideas for eye-popping new routines fall just within the lines. Then she finds experts to help choreograph and execute those crazy ideas with authority.

The Canadian Olympic Committee announced this week that the 59-year-old Montreal native will be among its next Hall of Fame inductees. She coached icon Sylvie Fréchette to solo gold in 1992 and twins Penny and Vicky Vilagos to duet silver, then helped the Canadian team to silver in 1996. This summer in London, Sauvé says, her team is a contender for the podium, too. She has enlisted experts such as Cirque du Soleil, protected Canada's routines in secrecy and travelled the world to research the competition.

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And not even a recent experience with cancer has kept Sauvé from striving toward that goal.

Last fall, Sauvé learned that a tiny bump on the right side of her nose was cancerous. Her team was soon to compete at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, so she didn't worry them but quietly scheduled surgery for afterward.

The team swam to Pan Am gold in the team and duet events, earning automatic entry to the 2012 Olympics. She then returned home and had the bump removed. But biopsies kept coming back positive, so she needed repeated procedures until her doctor was confident he had removed all of the cancer. Sauvé told her swimmers but insisted she would be fine, and they weren't to worry.

"We were a little shocked and emotional when she told us, but we were never scared," veteran team member Marie-Pier Boudreau-Gagnon said.

"Julie is such a strong person, so we never worried."

Sauvé said she was never sick. But pain came after the numerous surgeries, when the right side of her face was swollen and bruised for much of the winter.

"Half of my face looked like a monster," the lighthearted Sauvé said with a laugh, pointing to the-now tiny scar aside her nose. "I keep seeing the doctor to have it checked, but for me, the cancer is gone, I'm confident. I honestly never stopped to think about it. I just kept coaching, never taking time off. I didn't let worry into my head."

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The energetic, blond-haired, green-eyed coach has been a fixture around the sport. In the mid-1980s, Sauvé began bringing in experts outside her sport to advise on strength and conditioning, speed swimming and physiology, which most amateur sport coaches in Canada weren't doing back then.

"I dream too much sometimes, and I'm creating stuff like the girls somehow have three arms and four legs or something, and they are like, 'Julie, that's impossible,'" said Sauvé, who was a synchronized swimmer as a girl. "I get inspiration from the cinema, sports, theatre, and I am always writing things down."

She took her team to a Montreal Impact game to find ideas for a soccer-themed 2012 Olympic team technical routine, and even had a player visit them. For their Circus-inspired team free routine, she borrowed performers and choreographers from Cirque du Soleil, and experts in aerials and biomechanics.

"Julie loves to push the limits of our sport, always coming with some crazy idea. At first, we're like, 'Are you sure, Julie?' But she always comes prepared," team member Valerie Welsh said. "She is creating new movements and trends in Synchro all the time."

Sauvé said other countries have stolen Canada's acrobatics before, thus the secrecy. Other coaches are combing and e-mailing her, trying to uncover information. She wants the routines fresh to the London judges. The team hopes to perform before a Montreal audience for the first time this week, no cameras permitted. Then, she is taking them to train in a secret Spanish location until the Games.

"You work for a year developing movements, and then they steal from you, and you look just like everybody else," Sauvé said. "We are the best in the world in acrobatics. It's our strength, and we're going to use it."

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Sauvé doesn't say how long she will keep coaching. She's passionate about golf and creating oil paintings and imagines a day when perhaps she'll retire to those passions.

"When I do something, I'm very, very passionate, and it has to be perfect," Sauvé said. "I like everything extremely organized and perfect, so Synchro has always fit me so well. Coaching is my passion, and I'm so lucky."

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About the Author
Sports reporter

Based in Toronto, Rachel Brady writes on a number of sports for The Globe and Mail, including football, tennis and women's hockey. More


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