From Simone to Elaine

Bob Dunn
Distant Replay

The unexpected withdrawals from the Olympic events by the greatest gymnast ever, Simone Biles, brought back some ugly memories of Canada’s past. Elaine Tanner, who may have been this country’s greatest swimmer ever, made her Olympic debut in the 100-metre backstroke, at Mexico City’s 50-metre pool, and she had the audacity to win a silver medal.

Audacity, because she had been trumpeted from coast-to-coast as perhaps her country’s best hope for a gold medal. Anybody who has attended or even watched the Olympics knows there is always a measure of hope in anticipating medals. It is never a certainty.

In Tanner’s case, she finished second by a fingernail — 1/20th of a second. At the post-race post-mortem, I was a few feet from Elaine as she faced reporters, who peppered the innocent teenager with questions like:

“Why did you lose? What happened? Did you disappoint your country?”

Not much beyond teenage years myself, I remember being appalled. My Winnipeg Tribune story the next day included this: “Some of them will continue to maintain that she shirked her duty. Some might even dare to say she let them down.”

By a fingernail.

Her time, 1:06.7, was a personal best. The U.S. gold medalist, Kaye Hall, set a world record, 1:06.2. Crushed by the line of questioning and the pressure leading up to it, Tanner’s broken spirit produced a disappointing time two days later in the 200 metres. She “only” won another silver. In Mexico, she became the first Canadian Olympian, ever, to win three medals and the first female swimmer, ever, to win one.

Tanner never swam again internationally. She went home to Vancouver and retired, at 18. What followed was the kind of anguish Simone Biles experienced, then depression and tragic living that included three marriages, living out of a car and contemplating suicide. Now 70, she has reportedly found happiness, contentment and even a little pride in her teenage accomplishments.

At the Commonwealth Games in 1966 and the Pan Am Games in 1967, Elaine Tanner won 12 medals (six gold). As the swimming writer, I’d covered many of her events leading up to the Pan-Am and Olympic Games. After Mexico, and the Canadian newspaper headlines “Tanner loses gold” I never saw her again.

For the record, the headline on my story the day after her first silver medal was more sympathetic: “Second hard to take.”

Post expires at 11:59pm on Tuesday September 21st, 2021