Elaine Tanner cherishes the rare medal that Canada reclaims

She was once hailed as Canada’s best athlete, and Elaine Tanner has the acclaim to prove it as a teenage swimming prodigy known as “Mighty Mouse” at the Olympic games, Commonwealth and Pan American.

But her most cherished medal came outside the pool. It was a silver Service Medal, the predecessor to the current Officers of the Order of Canada medal.

When the Canadian government wanted it back in exchange for the replacement honor, Tanner, now 71, refused. She said she couldn’t let go of it because it told the story of her life.

Tanner competed in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics with an overwhelming advantage to win the gold medal. Instead, with the burden of an entire country on the 17-year-old’s shoulders, she went home with two silver medals in the 100 m and 200 m backstroke, and a bronze medal in the 4×100 m relay. free.

Tanner was devastated. At the age of 18, she quit competing. She suffered for years with panic attacks, eating disorders and depression.

Now, almost 55 years on from Mexico, Tanner says from her Victorian home that she has turned the loss of gold into her biggest win.

She said she hopes her way out of the “black hole” her life has become after the Olympics can inspire others who are facing tough times.

The service medal stands for that. She picked up the medal from a table covered with photographs of her sporting achievements and explained what the honor meant in her life’s quest for a gold medal.

“I thought my biggest mission in life was to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games, but I realized that it’s not the gold that goes around your neck,” says Tanner.

“That’s the gold you mine in yourself. That’s my message.”

In 1970, Tanner became the youngest Canadian to be awarded the Service Medal, created to recognize achievement and exemplary service to the nation.

The medal was introduced in 1967 and was awarded to 294 people before concerns about its modest appearance led to a government restructuring in 1972, including a request to voluntarily return the award.

It meant too much for Tanner.

“My heart tells me that this is a medal given to me by the government, actually by (former) governor Roland Michener, and he pinned it to my skirt, and I said, ‘This means something. is 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 the living room overlooking the marina. “I’m glad I kept it.”

Tanner came 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 100 m butterfly at the age of 14.

“I must be 4 feet 9 and probably under 90 pounds when drenched,” says Tanner. “I’m really small. I walked up to the podium to receive my medal and the other girls were standing tall over me and a swimming coach from Ocean Falls, shouting, ‘Go on, Mighty Mouse.’

“The crowd laughed, and the media picked it up and it just stuck.”

This was followed by multiple national titles, world records and gold medals at Commonwealth and Pan American games.

She’s the favorite to win a gold medal in Mexico City.

Instead, she came in second.

She may be the first Canadian woman to win any Olympic swimming medal, but the headline is “Tanner loses gold,” she said.

Tanner said she returned from Mexico City with an emotional and psychological breakdown.

“I don’t just want to win for myself and my family, but I also have to win for Canada,” she said. “It’s a burden… In my small mind, I let everyone down.”

Crawling out of the “black hole” took years. “I struggled for too long,” said Tanner. “I actually did.”

She is currently a mental health advocate and children’s book author and hopes she can help others.

“We all go through challenges in life,” she said. “We will fail but keep going. The key to life is to keep going.”

Tanner wrote an open letter in 2017 to Olympic champion swimmer Penny Oleksiak, who won a medal for Canada at age 16, advising her to believe in herself and listen to her inner voice. .

Christopher McCreery, who has written dozens of books on Canadian orders, medals and medals, said Tanner and Olympic ski champion Nancy Greene Raine may be among the few Canadians alive who still have the Medal of Honor. Service chapter.

McCreery said of the original 294 medals, 104 were returned in the early years. About 30 people held the medals, he added, but most died.

He said in an interview from Halifax: “It’s a super rare, scarce medal and it’s a very unusual story because she was so young when she received it and is clearly still very attached to it. It. “It’s not just the medal, it’s the story behind it.”

Tanner said that despite breaking five world records, winning gold medals at Commonwealth and Pan Am games, and winning the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top athlete in At the age of 15, she considers the Service Medal the award that best honors her journey.

“It’s symbolic of all my accomplishments wrapped up in one, from the country where I did it,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on February 4, 2023.

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