Emilie Heymans and Jennifer
Abel win first medal for Canada
TORONTO STAR - July 29, 2012—All of a sudden, Emilie Heymans
didn’t know what to do with those things sticking out from
They’re called arms.
Climbing to the three-metre springboard platform at the Aquatics
Centre for the second round in the synchronized diving competition,
her muscle-sculpted upper limbs had abruptly morphed into strange,
“I don’t remember what I have to do with my arms when
we walk,” she hissed to partner Jennifer Abel .
Maybe 15,000 times, over the past year alone, the two women have
stood together up there on the board for practice dives, seamlessly
in unison as they launched into space, then twisted and tumbled
into the water below. Each can do the precisely timed manoeuvring
in their sleep.
So Abel, younger by a decade than the veteran Heymans, calmed her
co-diver’s jangled nerves, reminded her: left, right, arms
up here and then down there.
It was a simple forward plunge. Yet they cocked it up, out of sync
and visibly sloppy.
Dreams of a gold medal died right there, as the Canadian team dropped
from second behind the invincible Chinese to fifth in the standings.
Then, because this event can change in the splat of a splash, the
duo resettled their thoughts, sharpened their focus.
Back up to fourth next time around, then nailed a reverse 2½
somersault to edge past the Italians into third, and hanging there,
tough, through a heart-thumping final cycle.
The scores flashed: Canada bronze.
This country’s first medal of the 2012 Summer Games, on just
Day 2 of competition, quickie gratification, which is not, historically
speaking, Canadian tradition. In Beijing four years ago, Canada’s
first medal didn’t arrive until Day 8.
For the magnificent Heymans, it was her fourth medal in four consecutive
Summer Olympics. Nobody with the Maple Leaf on their sleeve has
ever done that before. “I couldn’t have ever imagined
diving in four games or being in this position at 30.”
It feels like the Belgian-born Heymans — her mother an Olympic
fencer for Belgium at the Montreal Games in 1976 — has been
around forever, off the springboard, off the 10-metre tower, individually
and then in the newfangled synchro discipline. She has done this
with three different partners, which is a mark of her tremendous
adaptability. Her Olympic diary stretches back to Sydney in 2000.
She’s copped two silvers and now two bronze, with the individual
springboard still on tap.
Maybe she’s done after London and maybe she isn’t,
Heymans hasn’t decided yet. But at this moment, she’s
something mighty special.
“I’m really happy that I was able to win my fourth
medal with Jennifer. We worked really hard over the last two years
for this and we’re glad it’s finally over.”
The team was second at world championships last year in Shanghai.
Barring an unimaginable catastrophe, the Chinese were destined to
take gold here, as they may indeed sweep every diving gold on the
menu. But silver had been well within grasp for the Montreal-based
That it didn’t happen might just be blamed on NBC cameramen.
Earlier in the week, the two women had scouted out a quiet spot
in the apron of the pool where they could convene between dives
and simulate their movements. But on Sunday afternoon, following
their fine first dive, they found their niche crawling with TV technical
They were rudely bumped and elbowed.
“Before our dive we always do a simulation on the ground,
and there were cameramen there, so we got jostled a bit by the cameras,”
said Heymans. “I think it might have disoriented us a little
bit in our own minds.”
That was when Heymans got all confused about her arm placement
and where to step into the dive.
“So, after that dive, we decided to change our routine. We
did our simulation elsewhere to have room and an environment where
you’re not looking at ‘is this guy going to back up
over me?’ I think that’s what kind of popped our psychological
button and took us out of our comfort zone.
“In our head it was: ‘What’s going on? What’s
going on?’ ”
Silver was still on the table but the Americans executed brilliantly
their fifth and final dive. The Canadians were just good enough
to barely stave off the Italians, with an overall score of 316.80
They cut it fine, which is why their co-coach Cesar Henderson,
who hails from the Dominican Republic, kept tossing a baseball in
his hand, to channel the stress.
News that Canadians had grabbed their first medal went racing out
on the Twitter-wire. Other Olympians, past and present, tweeted
off their congratulations, including a high-five from kayaker Adam
van Koeverden, himself a three-time Olympic medallist looking to
get on the podium again here, and Games golden oldie sprinter Bruny
“I hope it’s going to inspire and give energy to the
other Canadian athletes,” said Heymans, pale blue eyes glistening,
fingers touching once again another medal on a ribbon around her
neck. “It’s always exciting when you see your teammates,
the other athletes from Canada, winning a medal.”
Diving has been pretty much Heymans’ entire life since she
first jumped off a board at age 6, the sacrifices for moments like
these too plentiful to cite. “I started training at least
20 hours a week when I was 7. It’s a really big part of my
life. I think I’m going to carry this baggage for the rest
of my life.”
Her English is sometimes touch-and-go. She didn’t mean baggage
in a bad way.
This medal, though, was earned from a covenant of two — the
completely dissimilar Heymans and Abel yoked a couple of years ago.
They are yin and yang physically, have diverging interests in everything
from music to clothes, but have exhibited a synergy and symbiosis
“With Jennifer, it worked really well because we have the
same values and the same goals. For us, we invested a lot in synchronized
Indeed, says coach Henderson, they’ve spent two-thirds of
their training time on the synchro front, though their individual
dives at first faltered as a result.
What they have in common is quickness, the need for speed, so that
they move rapidly into position, waiting impatiently for the announcer
to say their names.
“Since the beginning of the year, we were really nervous
about this moment,” said Abel. “It will take time to
just come down and realize it (happened).”
Why did they fit so well with each other?
“It wasn’t that difficult,” Abel recalled. “We
have a big age difference, but when we first started Emilie said
that it was going to be 50-50. It didn’t matter that she was
Both hoped to savour the medal for at least one knees-up night
at the Athletes Village. But the individual competition is just
over the horizon next week and training continues.
Next time on the board, separated, they will be rivals.
“We don’t talk during (that) competition because we
have to be in our own bubble,” said Abel.
For this moment, though, they’re blowing bubbles in unison.