NORTH SAANICH, B.C. — Once hailed as Canada’s top athlete, Elaine Tanner has earned the accolades to prove it as the teenage prodigy known as “Mighty Mouse” at the Olympics, Commonwealth and Pan Americans.
But his most prized medal came outside of the pool. It is a sterling silver service medal, the ancestor of the current Officer’s Medal of the Order of Canada.
When the Canadian government wanted him back for the replacement honour, Tanner, now 71, turned him down. She says she can’t let him go because it tells the story of her life.
Tanner went to the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, which was heavily favored to win gold. Instead, she came home with the weight of a nation on her 17-year-old shoulders with two silver medals in the 100m and 200m backstroke and a bronze medal in the 4 x 100m freestyle.
Tanner was devastated. At 18, she retired from competition. She suffered from panic attacks, eating disorders and depression for years.
Now, nearly 55 years after Mexico, Tanner says from her home in regional Victoria that she has turned the loss of gold into her biggest victory.
She hopes the way she got out of the “black hole” that her post-Olympic life has become can inspire others who are going through difficult times.
The Service Medal symbolizes this. She took the medal from a table covered with photos of her sporting achievements and explained the significance of the award in her quest for life’s gold.
“I thought my biggest challenge in life was to win gold at the Olympics, but I realized it wasn’t gold hanging around your neck,” Tanner said.
“This is the gold you mine within yourself. This is my message.
In 1970, Tanner became the youngest Canadian to receive the Service Medal, created to recognize exemplary achievement and service to the nation.
The medal was introduced in 1967 and awarded to 294 people before concerns over its unassuming appearance led to a government reorganization in 1972, including a demand for voluntary return of the award.
It meant too much to Tanner.
“My heart told me this is the medal given to me by the government, actually (former) Governor General Roland Michener, and he pinned it on my dress and I said: ‘It means the world to me.’ and I don’t want to give it up,” Tanner said.
“I like it the way it is,” she said from her living room overlooking a marina. “I’m so glad I kept it.”
Tanner had gone to Mexico City as a sporting and cultural phenomenon.
She earned the nickname “Mighty Mouse” in 1965 after winning her first Canadian national swimming title in the 100m butterfly at age 14.
“I must have been 4-foot-9 and probably about 90 pounds soaked,” Tanner said. “I was really small. I walked up to the podium to receive my medal and the other girls were towering over me and a coach from Ocean Falls, the swim coach, yelled, ‘Keep it up Mighty Mouse.
“The crowd laughed and the media picked it up and it just stuck.”
Other national titles, world records and Commonwealth and Pan American Games gold medals followed.
She was an untenable favorite to win gold in Mexico City.
Instead, she finished second.
She may have been the first Canadian to win an Olympic medal in swimming, but the headlines were: “Tanner loses gold,” she said.
Tanner said she returned from Mexico City an emotional and psychological wreck.
“Not only did I want to win for myself and my family, but I also had to win for Canada,” she said. “It was a heavy burden…In my little head, I let everyone down.”
Coming out of the “black hole” took years. “I fought for so long,” Tanner said. “I really have.”
She is now a mental health advocate and author of children’s books and hopes she can help others.
“We all go through challenges in life,” she said. “We will suffer defeat, but we will continue. The key to life is to carry on. »
Tanner wrote an open letter in 2017 to Olympic swimming champion Penny Oleksiak, who won medals for Canada aged 16, advising her to trust herself and listen to her inner voice.
Tanner and Olympic ski champion Nancy Greene Raine are likely among the few Canadians still alive with a service medal, said Christopher McCreery, who has written a dozen books on Canadian decorations, awards and medals.
Of the original 294 medals, 104 were returned in the early years, McCreery said. About 30 people kept their medals, but most died, he added.
“It’s a super rare and rare medal, and it’s a very unusual story because she was so young when she got it and obviously has kept a great bond with it,” he said. he said in an interview in Halifax. “It’s not just the medal, it’s the story behind it.”
Tanner said that despite breaking five world records, winning gold at the Commonwealth and Pan Am Games and winning the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top athlete at age 15, she considers the service medal as the prize that best appreciates their journey.
“It’s a symbol of all my accomplishments rolled into one, of the country I did it for,” she said.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 4, 2023.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press
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