My life path has been one of bittersweet irony, experiencing the apex of success at a very early age and then just as quickly becoming the victim of it.
5/10ths of a second was all it took, or so I believed, to turn triumph into tragedy. In the aftermath of my shattered dream of Olympic Gold in 1968 I began a personal free fall that hit me so hard it took another 2 decades to even get close to hitting bottom.
Desperate to escape the pain of my past only kept me more and more imprisoned in my own tormented mind. Unaddressed emotions haunted my every move until in May of 1988 there was no where else left to hide.
I had lost everything there was to live for including my marriage and 2 children and had long been estranged from my family following the years that drifted into silence from both sides. I was anorexic and depressed by the years of constant rejection just trying to survive on my own while still trying to outrun my demons.
Having just fled my final desperate relationship, I now found myself homeless and destitute on the streets of Vancouver with only a few dollars in my pocket, alone and afraid.
My story in it's entirety tells of my journey from the victor's podium to the brink of despair and the twist of fate which set me on a path to understanding and in time allowed me to gradually heal the wounds I had long been carrying.
I sincerely hope that my story can help others on their own journeys, who seek to find solace amongst the chaos, and strength from the obstacles which constantly challenge our courage, leaving us oftentimes feeling broken and defeated.
In the end it is not so much the events which define us, but our interpretation of them which makes us who we are.
The Early Years
“This will change Elaine” were the prophetic words uttered by my Dad as he watched my Olympic dream slip away in Mexico City some 40 years ago.
As a young girl growing up in California near Santa Clara I was surrounded by Olympic Champion swimmers who trained nearby and long before my sixth Birthday I was churning up and down the pool hoping someday to become one too.
When my family moved back to Vancouver in the fall of 1959 I was determined to bring my Olympic dream with me.
Under the brilliant guidance of my new coach, Howard Firby, over the next 8 years he helped build that dream turning my hopes into reality.
My fierce competitive spirit coupled with my small physical stature earned me the nickname “Mighty Mouse” which pretty much summed me up as a kid. Everything from swimming to schoolwork I dove into headfirst.
By all appearances my life seemed to be picture perfect . I was rewriting the record books in the pool and achieving academic honors enough to have earned the new school library named “Tanner Hall” in my honor.
But not all is what it appears at first glance and that was so true for me consciously unaware of the turbulence hidden deep under the smooth surface of my life.
The water was the one place where I was able to have total freedom and a sense of power other than that it seemed I had none. Each time I entered it I was the one controlling the environment rather than the other way around like the rest of my life. It became just me against the clock loving the simplicity and the comfort it returned to me by my hard work and hours of effort at the pool.
As much as my family supported my dream and applauded my achievements there was always a feeling of emptiness within me that no victory or report card could fill.
Just like me, my family played their own roles in our mutual charade. We all went about our lives as if nothing was wrong but it wasn't difficult for any of us as we had been in a steady state of denial for as long as I can remember.
It seemed to me at least, that the normal business of life for others somehow in our family became secretive and discussed by my parents only behind closed doors far away from the eyes and ears of my sister and I consequently creating an atmosphere of fear and anxiety in my life that grew along with me.
Compliancy and obedience was part of my genetic makeup allowing me to remain a willing participant in our “conspiracy of silence”. Discipline in our family was implied and emotions were not spoken. The rules never had to be enforced because my sister, Glennis and I were too afraid to even question them let alone break them and strangely it was all done with no words exchanged between any of us.
Desperate to be heard with no voice I performed instead. My worth as a person came from everyplace else other than where it should have been. I was only validated by the sweep of a stopwatch or the number of A's on my report card.
I lived my childhood like an adolescent version of a quantum particle existing only if I was being measured or observed otherwise I virtually ceased to be real.
With no emotional outlet where I felt safe , the water became my solvent to ease my fears and keep myself in good stead with my parents.
They never once physically or verbally threatened me for my behavior or pressured me to swim but it wasn't necessary as I had subconsciously absorbed through my pores what my role was to become in keeping up the happy facade in which we all operated from. I knew in the deepest part of me that there was an intangible, unspoken sadness in our family for whatever the reason and I somehow had taken it on to mend by myself because it was clear that no one else was stepping up to save us.
I was especially fond of my Dad who was more like me with a lot of energy and good sense of fun but unfortunately for all of us he was fighting his own inner dragons and it was always me trying to slay them. He was prone to mood swings which could last for weeks on end and everybody would run for the hills except for me. I took his feelings on like they were my own and if he wasn't happy then it was my fault and I had done something wrong to have triggered it.
My Mom on the other hand was a real trooper, consistent and steady as a rock, never complaining and always working hard as a full time bookkeeper while making sure our physical needs were well taken care of at home.
Her loyalty and commitment to us was beyond reproach and in my heart I know she loved us as much as she could but somewhere in her past she locked away her real feelings becoming unable to share them with us. Consequently I never felt completely secure of her love once again feeling it was my fault that she couldn't extend to me the warmth and expression which I so longed for as a child. So I compensated for it by over-achieving and making myself as perfect as I could be hoping I would be a worthwhile investment of her time.
My sister, Glennis who was 2 years older had always been much quieter than me and somehow inherently sad, preferring her school work and academics rather than the more boisterous things that my Dad and I did chumming around together. She always had to live in my shadow which must have been very difficult for her as she was struggling for her own validation the same as I was. It was sad to witness her silent emotional withdrawal from our family more and more with every passing year until sadly there came the time when none of us could reach her.
The one solid presence in my life which I trusted in for her unconditional love was my grandmother Nana, who lived with us. She wove the various straggled ends of our family together and added the emotional salve which made me feel wanted regardless of how well I performed or how high my grades were.
Unfortunately for me though, somewhere in the process of trying to fabricate my ideal family I lost my sense of self. My boundaries became blurred and gradually the feelings and thoughts of others were difficult to differentiate from my own.
My swimming became the entire focal point of our lives and I took on the responsibility of maintaining the veneer of happiness for our family even if it was a thin layer only.
I understand now that competing for me was far more complex than winning or losing but became my vital lifeline to my identity as a person.
Life was great for me when everything went well. We all played our silently conspired parts appearing on surface to sail smoothly along as the perfect picture of happiness assuming that none of us created any waves in those unspoken roles.
But little did we realize the perfect storm brewing on the horizon in the form of the Olympic Games in 1968 Mexico City.
In a mere 1 minute and 7 seconds my life, my identity and self image was about to change drastically.
Mexico City, 1968
With the Olympics just weeks away I was really feeling stifled by the pressure engulfing me from everywhere and with no one to turn to for understanding I took it all on by myself in silence as I had long been conditioned.
The dream I once had as that little 6 year old girl in California no longer belonged to me anymore, but was now the public property of an entire country and I was the one who had to deliver it. There was no margin for error – it was gold or nothing.
I felt alone and scared that I was carrying the hopes and expectations of 25 million people by myself and it was up to me to pull it off.
Mentally preparing for the final of the women's 100m backstroke which was rapidly approaching I couldn't allow myself any excuses.
Truth be known our swim team had been completely let down by our swimming association who had organized our training camp with such a grocery list of blunders it could have definitely sunk my hopes of a best performance if I was to dwell on it.
Convincing myself I was used to pressure and had been able to handle it all by myself time and time again I just couldn't shake the fear and doubt which was now coursing through my veins as I waited for the announcement of my race that night.
Trying with every ounce of mental discipline to keep my thoughts in check as the gun sounded the last thoughts I can remember were “But what if I lose!”
Even though I swam well enough to break the Olympic Record I finished second by a fraction of a second to Kaye Hall of the US.
As the shock waves of the race hit me my mind literally shut down. I remember nothing – not a word, not a face – just a complete blank. I missed the entire medal ceremony even though I was physically present because I've seen the photos of myself standing on the podium...
I have since realized that the mind is so mysteriously complex because the ensuing emotional numbness which immediately blanketed me graciously saved me from a mental meltdown in front of the entire world.
Eventually I returned with 3 of the 5 total medals won by Canadians that year but because none of them were gold they didn't count.
Sinking into the Depths
The emotional baggage I carried home with me from those Games was now being stuffed along with all the other unaddressed feelings still hiding from my childhood and it was all quickly becoming too heavy for me to handle by myself.
Already feeling emotionally fragile I was welcomed by headlines reading “Tanner Loses Gold!” and my family who had been lost for words at the best of times could only advise me to just take it on the chin and get over it, but then again, what could they have said.
I know in my heart my parents were devastated too.
When I eventually saw them the following day at the Olympic Village they brought me a bouquet of flowers in an attempt to say what they just couldn't express in words.
Ironically the only time I witnessed them buying flowers was for a funeral and little did we all realize how prophetic the symbolism in their gesture would become.
With the many layers of suppressed feelings piled on by the weight of a disappointed nation now heaped on top of it and my fragile foundation built from those thin existential bricks consisting of my false sense of worth rapidly began to crumble underneath me causing me to lose my emotional footing.
Having entrusted myself to a system which seemed to have turned a blind eye to my plight and then so coldheartedly abandoned me to take the fall thrust a fatal blow to the very heart of what I had based my life upon and turned my emotional balance upside down.
With no safety net to catch me and my identity and self esteem broken into little pieces left on the cold, hard deck of a Mexico City swimming pool I was now convinced I was a failure and like the grains of an hourglass turned on it's head the sands of my life slowly began sifting in the opposite direction.
I was completely unprepared for the emotional aftermath which I was about to suffer for far too long as a direct consequence of the lack of understanding and support of post trauma which was a virtually unheard of condition back then not like it is today. It all began so quietly, insidiously subtle were the signs of my change.
That's what's so scary about wounds to our psyche, they can't be seen or bandaged to heal like a broken bone can. They creep up on us almost as if behind our backs where we just can't grasp them and deal with them and then they play tricks on us convincing our brains that we are really okay when we're not. They shroud our minds with a blanket of denial protecting us from our reality but at the same time prevent us from seeing the truth which ultimately is our only path to recovery. I know for me it started almost immediately I returned home from the Olympics.
I had difficulty setting any meaningful goals and if I made one I had trouble following through. It was if my willpower had been sucked right out of me and there was a desperate emptiness within me that I was incapable of filling for myself having given away all my power years ago combined with the rawness of the emotional pain I now associated with failure.
This was the start of my frustrating search looking for meaning and fulfillment in all the wrong places taking me another 25 years of struggle and mistakes before I slowly began to understand that I was on the wrong path.
Having been conditioned to allow others to validate me and create my identity set me up for total disaster. Trusting and empowering myself to such a tenuous fate could only lead to failure and disappointment as the world outside never had my best interest at heart and could never live up to the unrealistic expectations I had placed upon it.
So on and on I went in a series of vicious cycles repeating the same mantra wondering why they always brought the same old result.
Every relationship I entered reflected the same false hope of filling the emptiness inside me that I could not and always ended in sadness leaving me feeling more hollow each time. I did not understand that I had reversed the process and needed to complete myself first.
My first marriage was not difficult to predict coming far too soon after the Olympics however lasting 10 years and bringing us 2 wonderful children Scott in 1975 and Shannon in 1977.
Divorcing in 1980 through mutual agreement we decided to split the 2 children with Scott remaining with his father, Ian, and Shannon coming with me from Prince George,to my new job in Vancouver at Sport BC.
One of the saddest things I've ever had to deal with in my life occurred over the next year as I witnessed Shannon's mental anguish of the separation between her and Scott, trying everything I could to keep her happy but to no avail. Finally seeking professional counselling to help her I was advised that her only hope was in reuniting the children and knowing Scott was secure in his home with Ian I decided to bring her back to her Dad and go it on my own. Leaving her was the hardest thing I have ever done and even today as I write these words I feel the ache in my heart once again.
It eases my pain to know that my intuition was the right one as today Shannon is happy and secure in her own world, confident and bright with a solid sense of herself and her goals as she continues on her own journey.
Scott from the first day he came into my world was as perfect in my eyes as he could ever be and still is today having weathered the experience of our divorce so well and will always just remain my wonderful “Bear”.
After my separation from my children I really struggled with myself and my inner demons. The isolation left me with far too much empty space so I went about filling it with everything I could think of in order to distract my mind from reality. I became a “busyaholic” spending as much time as I could doing anything that would keep me from feeling the real pain of my life. By simply trying to mask the symptoms instead of dealing with the truth only perpetuated the false belief system which was subconsciously driving my downfall.
It was at this point around the summer of 1982 when I was laid off from my job at Sport BC due to the recession that I really began to unravel.
I began digging up any contacts or friends that had once been chummy with me in my hay days and oddly enough they weren't there anymore. If anything now that I needed them for something they couldn't run fast enough in the opposite direction. I started to feel like a carried the Ebola Virus or something.
Maybe they were right in a way. It's difficult and often intimidating for us to confront the things of which we don't understand or just don't want to deal with and our natural reaction is to ignore it in hopes it will just go away on its own. It's the old head in the sand trick and I was fast becoming the object to be avoided.
I wrote letters, spent hours on the phone, cold called old contacts, met bureaucrats from high positions both federally and provincially as well as turning to the sports system not for pity or handouts but to genuinely contribute my effort and experience to help others in any capacity.
However I always got the same blank stare or the official run around , the “Hail Mary Pass the Buck” conditioned response when they really just want you to go away and not come back.
It became a losing situation as I was intimidated by their power to say no and they defended their territory by shutting me out for whatever their reasons. More than likely I had become a virtual anomaly to them having no previous experience in handling someone such as me and my presence made them feel a little uncomfortable, possibly threatened, or perhaps a little of both.
By now I was really desperate and truly convinced that there was something wrong with me having been turned down for what seemed like years on end. My confidence was so shattered by this time I lived in constant fear of rejection losing my motivation to ever try again. Rationally I knew quitting was a fast track to nowhere but by now I felt I had already arrived so why set myself up for even more abuse?
To make matters worse my inner demons had well established themselves in both my mind and body by this time and my struggle with eating disorders which had started around the time of my divorce in 1980 had evolved into a full blown case of anorexia. I was surviving off a muffin a day and battling with panic attacks and phobias which were now occurring with greater frequency and intensity. I was really beginning to feel the full brunt of losing my children by now and by having denied the pain of my loss for so long it manifested itself in my life disguised as physical symptoms acted out by my body.
It had gotten so bad I was living my life day to day, hour by hour and was in total fear that the others were right that I had completely lost my mind.
I know firsthand what a fine line it is between the two states of mind where one crosses over it and it has nothing to do with intelligence. There is a false sense of security thinking that education or position in life can grant us automatic immunity, the truth is emotional wounds can strike anyone regardless of the degree of intellect.
Having been rejected so many times from old contacts and associations I had made over the years I had pretty much conceded to throw in the towel to acquire meaningful work so I was quickly becoming desperate for anything.
But I had no success with that either as a direct consequence of who I was.
When I went looking for the most menial of jobs by knocking on doors or answering a classified ad the immediate reaction was consistently one of total surprise that I wasn't already employed as a sports broadcaster or represented by an agent negotiating endorsements and commercials for me.
They didn't understand that I had already tried but this was Canada and I wasn't a hockey player but just an amateur athlete and like everyone else I needed to work to pay my bills. Each time this happened I would crawl out the door more defeated and depressed than when I arrived.
My resilience had been worn down to the bone and so was my body as by now I was at an all time low of a skeletal 87 pounds having lost over 40 pounds of sinew and muscle. I wondered how my body had kept me alive all those years despite myself, admiring its willpower to survive was a lot stronger than mine as I had given up in my mind long ago.
In the spring of 1988 I had pretty much hit bottom.
I was heartbroken not to be able to see my children due to the years of financial struggle and destitution multiplied by the hundreds of miles of distance between us had kept us apart far too often. I was always hoping against hope my luck would change but with every passing year they only grew older and more distant and I more desperate until sadly it was too little too late for all of us.
Having just fled a short lived “never should have done it” relationship with nothing but a few suitcases, my old Pinto wagon and what, if anything, was left of my shattered sense of pride, I now had just officially run out of my last place to hide.
Deep down I was really upset and disappointed that I consistently kept placing myself in such self defeating situations. Subconsciously I knew in my gut what was required of me however I didn't have the intestinal fortitude nor the emotional reserve left to face my demons head on just yet.
By now I had really gone and done it. I found myself literally on the streets of Vancouver, the city where I had once pursued my dreams was at this moment the land of my living nightmare. I was anorexic, destitute, unemployed just barely hanging on by a thread to my sanity and now homeless. If there was ever a theory of chaos in human form I was it.
How could I have fallen through the cracks of society without someone noticing me? I felt so chewed up and spit out by it all and completely bewildered that this could happen to me. Trying desperately to find some temporary shelter I vowed to myself that I would rather crawl under a rock than go running home to my parents who already were convinced I was sick and self destructive anyway. Besides I did have some pride left as I hadn't seen them or spoken to them in a long while due to the fact that I never reconciled with them. (Family pictured left)
All the memories of the years holding in my feelings in silent suffering as the little girl with no voice who had tried so hard to please and accommodate my parents had left me feeling so short changed and under-appreciated.
On the flip side I can understand their anger and disappointment in me having to watch me throw away all my potential as a child and completely squander my life on a path of self destruction.
Therefore all of us gradually drifted apart in silence...
The only hope I had was to try one last attempt at finding work so I could take care of myself. Swallowing my pride once again and mustering up my courage I volunteered to waitress at a lounge for tips only hoping that the owner whom I had known through my swim club would take some pity on me and at least give me a chance to earn a few dollars. However he, like all the others just shook his head and showed me to the door.
With little or no options left my thoughts drifted to the unthinkable. I followed its intent and drove my car to a solitude little rocky cove where I had spent magical childhood hours chasing over the rocks and dreaming of my Olympic moment.
I found a cold wet rock and sat gingerly on its menacing surface silently wondering if I had the guts left to do it.
The soothing rhythm of the water was familiarly comforting and my mind drifted back to the memories of the joy and empowerment I had once felt in its presence as a young girl.
A Glimmer of Hope
Somehow I knew at that moment almost innately that this was not to be my fate. That every jagged piece of my past would somehow fit in to a much larger and more meaningful puzzle and one day I would be able to understand it and comprehend its wisdom which would unfold in my life. And so I decided to trust my intuition and be patient. I'm so glad I did...
Because it was fate that my desperate cry for help was answered within a few short weeks in the form of a chance encounter with someone who would change the course of my life forever and change his too.
His name was John Watt and he was not exactly a knight in shining armour either as he was carrying his own share of pain and loss when we met. Maybe that is why he could recognize the sadness hidden beneath my once famous smile mirrored in his own.
I felt immediately comfortable in his presence. Strangely for me when I first saw him it was like meeting an old friend whom I had known all my life and we were once again reuniting. The mischievous twinkle in his eye and his warm Irish charm only helped to reinforce my first impression and I knew in an instant that I could trust him.
As we shared our experiences together we began to recognize many parallels in our past. Although our experiences were different our paths were similar fortuitously bringing us together at this juncture in our lives.
From his very first breath in this world John's will to survive was challenged by the tremendous odds stacked against him. Born months prematurely in Bangor, County Down a small seaside town in Northern Ireland at barely a pound his fate looked periously hopeless short of a miracle. And a miracle he was as little did the world realize just how brave and tenacious a heart and soul was carried within his tiny little frame.
John, along with his parents and 2 brothers immigrated to Canada when he was only 8 growing up in Toronto's trendy Beach area. His childhood memories there were very special to him and his love and enthusiasm for all his antics as the crazy, fun loving kid who gave 110% effort to everyone and everything that crossed his lucky path was contagious.
He was as hard working as he was loyal. In high school he was the one who didn't tow the line but drove the cool cars covered in surf stickers, wore the neat clothes and was the initiator of legendary parties.
He was the lifeguard and all round athlete that lived for hockey and was fun to be around but always earned what he had the hard way never letting his popularity affect his innocent charm.
As happy and carefree as John's past initially appears, he too, had his own set of dark inner clouds which were cleverly obscured by his good humour and laughter but nevertheless cast shadows upon his present.
Over the course of John's school years his life at home was less than ideal as his parents were constantly fighting leaving an atmosphere of tension while trying to grow up. At 12 years old his parents eventually separated leaving John awkwardly in the middle. Feeling sorry mainly for his father and concern for his younger sister and brother thrust John into the role of caretaker. The consequences of this had an immediate and profound effect on the direction of his life.
Similar to myself, although under a completely different set of circumstances, he silently buried these feelings trying to deny they ever existed in a desperate attempt to carry on with his life as best he could under the stressful conditions he had been placed in.
Then in the late '70's and early '80's John was hit by a wave of devastating events totally out of his control when he lost 3 members of his family in quick succession. He watched his Dad suffering from cancer rapidly deteriorate and die within weeks of his diagnosis and then less than a couple of months later after losing his father his mother in Sioux Falls, South Dakota was hit head on by a teenager who had been drinking and driving and was killed instantly.
Only a few short years later John's older brother Bill was hit by his own personal trauma.
While trying to deal with a bitter divorce and losing custody of his two daughters was laid off from his corporate job a victim of the recession in the early '80's . Having just lost everything he fell onto hard times. John being the caretaker as he was tried to help him as best he could literally clothing and sheltering him to keep him off the streets.
Mental depression with no proper help or support from the health care system in combination with the cocktail of medications he had been put on sent Bill over the edge attempting suicide a number of times and it was always John to the rescue.
Sadly though, Bill lost his battle with his sickness on a cold, January night in Belleville, Ontario when John frantically trying to find his brother was horrified and traumatized when he discovered Bill's broken and battered body laying like a crumpled heap in a pool of blood on the frozen ice having just jumped from the bridge high above.
Soon after John sold everything he had in Ontario and with a broken spirit moved to Vancouver to escape the pain of his losses.
With a string of successful careers in recreation administration and the resort and hotel industry combined with his own entrepreneurial flare John felt confident to try his luck in the west, but like me luck and timing were not on his side either.
Although he was in a much better circumstance than I when we first met his risk taking nature coupled with the recession that hit BC in the mid '80's had just cost him his marriage, his home and everything he had built up from his lifetime of hard work.
The Long and Winding Road
By the fall of 1988 we were both at loose ends and as John summed up the strands of our lives so well when he mused “that even death was starting to look good”. We knew at that moment we had nothing left to lose and both being free spirited by nature we decided to take off and hit the road.
Despite the advise from others warning him that he didn't need my “extra baggage” along for the ride, as I said before John was always loyal to a fault and even though we were only friends at the time he took me in tow nevertheless.
The fact that he showed his faith in me when no one else did and had the ability to see something within me that even I wasn't able to recognize anymore spoke volumes on his compassion and character as a person. He saw me as his “diamond in the rough” but quite honestly I don't think he knew just how rough.
“Like 2 peas in a broken pod” as Malcolm Kelly described us in the National Post we headed south to California in a beaten up old Volvo with our pockets almost empty, our hearts hollowed by the past just waiting to be filled and our 2 wounded souls in hopes of being mended.
What started out as our great escape from the pain of our pasts became our road to recovery.
Our journey would eventually take us over thousands of miles across North America and the better part of 2 decades to complete.
Our travels would meander and wind randomly taking us to locations such as Santa Barbara, Carmel, San Francisco, Boulder Colorado, Vermont, the coast of Maine, Portsmouth New Hampshire, the Oregon Coast, South Carolina, Boston and all across Canada from coast to coast numerous times.
Despite all the odds against us we were able to nourish a friendship that kept us bonded through the turbulence churned up by our completely unconventional and unstructured lifestyle.
As true underdogs we survived on John's wits and ingenuity having been a maverick all his life and a no rules kind of guy, which was in total contrast to me, so I was learning fast out of necessity and now having cut all our ties to the past we were completely alone except for each other.
From the beginning John was much more grounded in the truth than I ever was and it took all his energy and patience to shake me to my senses meanwhile trying to keep our heads above water in our never ending challenge to survive each new environment we landed in.
I know for certain it was John's stubborn persistence at kicking down the walls from where I hid behind in my conveniently contrived psychological safe room which I had created over the years for myself. I hadn't had the courage before to emerge from the sanctity of it but with his support and often times not so subtle persuasion I slowly began to take some small steps away from the darkness of my fears.
Without John I would still have remained unaware that I was a prisoner of my own mind chained to the anchor of denial relinquishing my chance to lift the heavy emotional burden I carried deep within my heart.
Reflecting back it seems to me now that I had been operating all those years from a state of semi detachment only going through the physical motions of my life but viewing it from a place of impartiality as if I was a witness to it but not a fully engaged participant. I appeared to have become a stranger in it having just spent the last 20 years in a prolonged state of being out of my body.
The memories spanning that interval of my life manifested as fragments, just bits and pieces here and there with no cohesiveness or continuity. Those initial emotional shock waves that had hit me at the Olympics were still having their after affects on me even then. Realizing in truth that they were merely the catalyst of my fall and not the root cause of it as everyone had presumed.
The seed of my fear had been cloaked in so many clever disguises in my life that I wasn't able to recognize them because of it. Blinded by my unquestioned obedience to my parents, the sports system,the establishment and people of authority I soldiered on afraid to speak up always believing that they genuinely cared about me.
That inherent fear of my childhood had taken so deep within me that when I was only 3 years old I had climbed on top of a table and fell off breaking my elbow in 2 places. Instead of running to my mother for help she found me hiding in a closet crying in fear that I had done something wrong. Ironically for me though, that broken elbow had been reset at such a perfect angle it enabled me to create a unique arm movement for the backstroke which later became my signature stroke and assisted me in establishing 2 World Records in it.
I had been so programmed to please others that I never established proper boundaries to defend my integrity when I needed to but ultimately criticized and demeaned by those very same people when I did. The whole thing seemed to leave me mind boggled and more confused than ever. That kind of mental conditioning had almost cost me my life. It couldn't go much deeper than that.
Fear like that does not let go easily as both John and I found out over the course of our journey.
Lifting the Veil
I must admit for the first few years I was extremely defensive and resistant to change and to confront the truth of my life because it was far too painful but thankfully as I said before John kept pushing me and slowly as I began to peel away the layers built up over the wounds of my past the easier it became.
At the beginning we both thought that by adventuring off into new places our lives would automatically change also, however we soon learned that even though the scenery was different we weren't.
Everywhere we went our baggage went too. There were no greener pastures around the next corner as we would soon learn.
It was only then when that message began to sink in that by accepting ourselves imperfect as we were confronting the real truth of our lives did we both significantly begin to make progress.
One of the strangest and more mysterious aspects of our journey was the fact that John and I seemed to gain insights in parallels, one behind the other as if some invisible hand was guiding us through our lessons with a knowing essence of the grander scheme in store for us.
Somehow everyplace and circumstance wove its own strands of wisdom to the fabric of our recovery. Like an elusive pattern each strand seem to knit into place. Some more complex than others but once we allowed ourselves to step back and comprehend the whole picture the clearer it became increasing our capacity to heal.
However our emotional wounds were not miraculously cured overnight and there were no epiphanies for either one of us. It was only through our persistence and hard work that led us to our gradual evolution and we will continue to evolve throughout our lives.
Keeping Us Afloat
John was the engine who kept the trip rolling trying to juggle so many things at once that I don't know how he even did it. Not only was he keeping us alive on the road and resurrecting me back from the dead , he was trying to cope with his own emotional wounds and the chronic pain from a compilation of sports injuries and car accidents resulting in a number of serious concussions and the neurological after effects as a consequence.
We studied and researched various types of alternative therapies and herbs to help John deal with his chronic pain as there seemed to be so little support and understanding for this condition which strikes so many people. The impact not only the lives of the sufferer but their families is profound but so poorly addressed from a conventional perspective. I've witnessed John's personality completely change when he is in pain and it frustrates me not to be able to help him as much as I should.
Despite our unconventional circumstances we were growing more comfortable in our choice to be different than the others as time went by. It never really occurred to us that just because we didn't have a permanent home as we kept moving from one place to the next we never really felt lonely nor homeless perhaps because we didn't allow ourselves the time to even ponder it.
For me it was easier to live like a rolling stone as I had so little to lose in choosing it. However for John it may have been more difficult having been much more financially stable but the truth of his reality had now become far too painful for even he to completely absorb the full extent of his losses.
With none of the usual ties that bind us down gave us a chance to see ourselves from an unusual perspective and completely changed us as individuals and our sense of values forever.
From our vantage point we were able to see others caught in the mind numbing wheel of material wealth going round and round and never being able to get off. Trapped by the cultural brainwashing of acquisitions our lives become manufactured more than authentic leaving little room to for us to to be spontaneous and explore other avenues to the fulfillment and genuine happiness of which we seek.
As outsiders looking in we found our happiest moments when we were engaged in simple unplanned things, spontaneous and natural with little or no cost to us other than to just be in the moment and enjoy it for what it was.
Having those experiences over the course of our travels has made us aware of the value of simplicity and spontaneity always trying to find as many mindful moments as we can.
But as much as our values were changing inside us we still had to face the constant challenges from the outside reality of life which was being able to survive from week to week.
The Adventure Highway
John's lifelong passion and knowledge of classic cars ironically became our ticket to ride throughout our entire journey liberating us from the normal commitments of life. We survived on our resourcefulness to track down our next classic investment and like 2 kids on a scavenger hunt we'd hit the road in search of our treasure. Usually we'd return with an old classic or two in varying degrees of condition and we would spend hours detailing and restoring them in order to present them properly. I soon learned John's standards were meticulous which kept my eye trained on my work.
The odd time we'd come back empty handed but not without a tale or two of adventure or misadventure while we were on the road. Due to the nature of what we did it tended to land us in some strange situation or crazy scenario as if scripted from some classic Robin Williams comedy except that we were experiencing it in real time.
For instance John and I found ourselves covered in straw and chicken dirt digging out a long forgotten '59 Triumph TR3 full of mice but intact in an old barn in Washington State.
I can never forget staring down the barrel of a shotgun held up to our faces by an old disheveled recluse in his dilapidated shack while getting lost somewhere in the middle of the California desert trying to locate the old Chevy pick up he had been trying to sell. No wonder he hadn't sold it...
Another time we were almost killed when our '69 Lincoln dropped an axle driving over to a Beach Boys concert at the California State Fair near Santa Cruz. As luck should have it we broke down in the middle of no man's land with not a soul in sight.
Like a scene from the ''Twilight Zone” a wizen old man with a scruffy white beard driving a classic '58 Chevy tow truck appeared out from nowhere in the midnight mist coming to our rescue.
He was a gentle giant and kindly drove us to the closest town of Paso Robles to spend the night while he made the repairs to our car the next day so we could resume our trip.
By the twinkle in his eye he quickly realized by the blank look on our faces that we had no idea where we had just been dropped off and of the local legend which had made this little town so famous.
Having some fun with our naivety he casually mentioned the tragic death of James Dean and nodding our heads curiously he then added as he drove off “Well he was killed in his Porsche on the exact spot where I just picked you up!”.
In the spring of 1992 John's Irish luck won him an American Green Card for permanent residency in a worldwide immigration lottery being picked in the first 40,000 of over 19 million applications. We were elated at his good fortune however the catch was in order for me to receive one as well we had to be legally married.
To us having been divorced a few times ourselves we weren't exactly big fans of the institution. Our partnership was a deep bond far beyond what a piece of paper represented therefore it had no meaning to us.
So reluctantly we organized a quick ceremony within a matter of days getting married in Woodstock, Vermont on the steps of the town hall with the ex mayor acting as the justice of the peace, the lady who owned the B&B as my maid of honor and her golden retriever, Bailey, as our witness.
We spent most of our time between California and New England doing a variety of different things to get by such as starting a used bike stand in Santa Barbara in an old makeshift outdoor metal shelter infested with spiders We tried to camouflage it with colorful balloons to make it look a little more welcoming but John spent more time trying to kill the spiders than selling the bikes.
We worked with an ex New England Patriot football player who was also at loose ends in his life and helped us fix up the bikes because his Dad owned a bicycle store back in Connecticut.
We'd pick up old bikes from Salvation Army auctions and then rope them onto our old Volvo wagon tying them to anything that would hold them down so we could get them home. They were hanging off the roof , out of the windows and the back hatch flying all around at every bump and corner as we drove down the Ventura Highway along the California coast.
I often times wonder how we managed to arrive without losing them all or be pulled over by the highway patrol.
We'd then detail the heck out of them and use a couple of layers of spray paint to make them look pretty leaving them really sticky and wet and we both got such a kick out of it when they were sold before the paint was even dry!
I tried everything from part time coaching at a high school in Kennebunk, Maine to slinging margaritas at a bar on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, California to help us get by but it was always John who really kept us afloat.
Running on Empty
One of the emotionally toughest moment that comes to mind when I think back was when we put what little money we had into a sports memorabilia venture, reproducing a limited number of framed prints of the 1927 World Series New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates team photos and autographs including Lou Gehrig's and Babe Ruth's. We had procured the original through a part trade of an old Mercedez Benz Cabriolet from a wealthy collector in Washington and we didn't know what to do with it.
John and I took all our prints to a sports collector show in White Plains, New York hoping our gamble would pay off. As it turned out the show was a complete disaster not even selling one print.
I'll never forget that evening John and I sharing a coffee ironically in the World Trade Center, sitting across a table from each other in total silence trying to take in the desperation of our present circumstances while watching the tears of our loss roll down our cheeks.
We managed to sell a couple of prints on the way back enabling us to buy food and gas enough to make it home.
Somehow though we always managed to get by but only through John's hard work and resourceful street smarts and it always amazed me how he could get knocked down so many times and still get up and try again. I'm convinced he's had more lives than a cat and always seems to be able to land on his feet regardless.
The Road to Recovery
I learned a lot about myself reflected through John's trials and tribulation being a lot easier as a spectator than it was for him taking most of the hits.
Watching his courage to take on the battle on behalf of both of us made me realize how much of the spunk as that Mighty Mouse of the pool had been squelched by fear and oppression and had gotten me nowhere and now I was feeling the sad loss of that part of me and became determined never to let that happen to me ever again.
The trust I once placed in all the wrong things and my mistaken need for approval from others was my achilles heel. I was finally starting to get the message and I began the process of taking it back in my life.
I have since learned to listen to that voice within and trust it far more than I trust anything else. It had already saved my life once before I was never going to ignore its guidance again.
The wisdom and intelligence innately given to me is my guide but its voice cannot be heard over the noise of our everyday lives because it lies within the inner silence of ourselves a place where we don't often dwell. I now appreciate that quiet place within me.
Once I started to authentically listen to the wisdom of my body not allowing food to become an issue of control or mental focus but as a consequence of just recognizing genuine hunger from emotional emptiness my eating disorders gradually disappeared and has not been an issue since.
I am also acutely aware that any of us that have suffered from a disorder or addiction in any form must be constantly vigilant of our behaviour. Awareness can catch the chance of a relapse before it takes a foothold knowing that we are all a work in progress.
Gradually over the course of my 20 year journey all the unaddressed issues of my past eventually came up in some form or another. Using the lessons and insights that were strengthening my emotional resolve I was feeling more comfortable and secure in my ability to begin accepting them for what they represented in my life.
I validated every one of them for how they affected my decisions and choices in my life and by asking myself the simple question whether they were of a benefit to me anymore I simply and gently let them go. Actually with practice it was really not that hard. I just needed to get out of my own way and trust in the process.
The more I let go the easier it became for me and with each negative emotion released the healthier I became both mentally and physically. Understanding fully that when we feel a wound we suffer in whole not just in part as our minds and bodies are in constant communication through the intimate interconnections of which we are made. Once I began the process of letting go and forgiving my panic attacks and personal phobias dissolved so completely they never even crossed my thoughts anymore.
My experiences also made me realize the vast complexity of our minds and how they can protect us but at the same time deceive us creating the most dangerous lies of all which are the ones we tell ourselves.
I have done my best to reconcile my relationships of the past knowing that it always takes two to make it work and when it does it truly becomes greater than the sum of its parts. And when it doesn't I can accept that too in full knowledge that I have genuinely done all I can from my behalf.
And on a similar note John and I have learned to redefine the word friend and in the end the real ones are few and far between but truly valuable assets in our lives when they are.
We have seen and experienced the lack of compassion and caring for one another and the aftermath left to our society as a whole when we don't. It is only through our own healing as individuals and with each other can we really begin to heal the open wounds of the world which so sorely need addressing at this moment in our history.
I am also grateful that I have always been physically active throughout my life and it has saved my sanity so many times I couldn't even begin to count. The only drawback for me were the times particularly the tough ones when exercise became my escape from reality and to recognize when it does.
If there was a single asset in which we depended on psychologically when all else failed was the power and healing of our laughter. It became our main sustaining ingredient through all the trials and tribulations of our journey.
Our gift was to be able to maintain our sense of humour and abstract the absurdity hidden behind the shadows of our lives. When the going got tough we could count on our laughter, especially at ourselves that would lighten our heavy hearts and give us the strength and courage to face another day.
Actually for John and I our laughter comes easily to us and very spontaneously. Especially John being the natural clown as he is. Our innate sense of wonder and enthusiasm for such simple and ordinary things was one of the strongest threads holding us together particularly at the start of our friendship. This was one of the characteristics of ourselves that we protected at all costs.
As much as we enjoyed living in the US and in particular the American people who were very generous and kind to us we were already beginning to witness their nation's gradual erosion long before 9/11 and although not perfect either we missed the social sanity and security of Canada.
We forfeited our green cards and returned to Ontario in the mid '90's happy to be home. But as I said before there are no greener pastures anywhere and our country is no exception. We've had our share of struggles and frustrations here too.
John still tried to beat the bureaucratic door down for me to re enter the sports system in hopes our wounds of the past were now healed but we both quickly learned it still remained shut. I had changed but sadly it seemed like they hadn't.
I can vividly recall an example of this when we were in Ottawa at a function and John had been able to schedule a private appointment with the Sports Minister at the time and lo and behold as we entered his office a line of sport bureaucrats were right behind us in tow to sit in on our meeting. Once again we were faced with the same old blank stare that by now we were both so familiar with.
Another instance comes to mind when all I requested was to placed on a resource list to assist and support provincial athletes and I was flatly turned down as “academically unqualified.”
Another perfect example of the bureaucratic brigade circling the wagons was being completely shut out of participating in any way shape or form in the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria in my own home province. I even had gone as far as extending myself to assist them in any capacity just after the announcement of winning the bid giving them plenty of time to be imaginative. In hopeful anticipation I waited for a reply and waited.... I was never even granted the privilege of handing out a single medal let alone be invited to attend.
Even more recently John and I attended a Canadian Sports Hall of Fame Awards reception and was approached by a senior official of the Canadian Olympic Committee. He apologized to me for the way I had been treated by the sports system in the past as one of Canada's greatest athletes as he stated it and wished to wipe the slate clean and handed me his business card. Finally beginning to feel confident that things had actually changed I took the chance and called him.
After one brief conversation on the phone with a promise for a follow up I waited and waited and waited...
Sometimes the truth hurts and I finally got the message, not much had changed in close to 4 decades at least not for me anyway.
After so many years of frustration from being blackballed from the system which I only wanted to contribute to positively John and I have finally realized that there are other avenues to pursue our passion and interests and share our experiences. We are always looking for a good cause to defend having learned so much in being the underdogs of life.
The one huge difference for me now in facing rejection is the fact that I'm not afraid to speak my mind when I see an injustice of any kind anymore or be intimidated because I don't fit in with the crowd like I used to. No one will ever silence my voice again.
Learning the wisdom contained within the lessons of my struggles has rewarded me with greater emotional muscle and resilience now and can help to catch me in case I may ever begin to fall again. Regardless of the challenges that life puts forth I can trust that I will never surrender to adversity again having worked so hard and to have come so far from where I started.
Mending Our Hearts
After logging all those miles across our two nations and carrying me for so long while trying to mend us both, on July 6, 2001 John's weary heart finally gave. Choking back my tears as the emergency room doctors wheeled him off to the operating room I held his hand perhaps for the last time knowing in my heart that fate had brought the two of us together for a very special reason.
We were meant to tread a unique path together side by side each one bringing a gift to one another to treasure for a lifetime, knowing that without each other our journey never would have begun. His gift was to give me strength from the outside to be able to weather the storms of life, to stand up for myself and never to give in. He made me believe in myself again and that is the most priceless gift of all.
John had given me his heart and soul there was nothing left of him to give. My gift to John was to gently point the way for him to seek out his own path to healing through the strength contained within his own heart and soul.
With John's life in the balance I knew we didn't have a lot in the material sense but I wouldn't have traded our precious time together nor our magical journey for a second. There were no regrets, our time was beyond anything money could ever buy.
As fate should have it once again in our lives John, thankfully survived his brush with death.
As I entered his room in intensive care as always John comforted me with his warm smile despite his pain.
Having been such a rock in my life for so long I realized as he lay there all hooked up to the machines and tubes which were now his lifeline to survival how vulnerable we all are and how tenuous are our lives are with each other. I vowed I would never take another day or loved one for granted for as long as I could draw breath.
Sharing our feelings with one another he was reluctant to admit not wanting to worry me that they almost lost him on the operating table and all he could think about “was more time with Elaine.”
The tears of relief and joy rolled down my cheeks in salty riverlets grateful that our journey still had a few more miles left on it together.
John's recovery was as always unorthodox. Doing it his own way and listening to his knowledge and intuition to heal rather than follow the standard rules of procedure. His doctors thought he was crazy to go against tradition but the two of us know we are all unique therefore our paths to healing are also different.
By listening to his inner voice and once more against all odds John is stronger and healthier today than ever.
I thank my blessings everyday that we can spend more of our time together travelling side by side on this path we share. Valuing the truly important things of our lives and appreciating the beauty of our friendship and the joy of self discovery from the gift of it.
The words of my Dad some 40 years ago in Mexico City have far greater meaning for me today.
Yes, he was right, the Olympics did change me – but for the better.
The experience of my journey with John and sharing our lessons with others seeking their own paths to inner growth have given me far greater satisfaction and meaning than any Olympic medal, gold or not, would have brought to me.