Wednesday, April 9, 2008

When Olympic dreams die

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 9, 2008


The news about Olympic torch protests knocks decades from Bill Sawchuk’s life. In an instant, the middle-aged father of two reverts to being a 21-year-old swimmer trapped in a fog of political maneuvering over which he has no control.

Mr. Sawchuk quit school to focus on training. He posted world-class times at swim meets. He allowed himself to dream about winning Olympic gold.

Then, the world intervened.

The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan. In reaction, the United States led a boycott of the 1980 Olympics at Moscow. Canada agreed to join the protest, pulling the plug on the aspirations of a generation of athletes.

In an instant, years of sacrifice — chilly dawns spent in the pool, late-night revelries skipped, jobs and studies and marriages delayed — went down the drain.

It took years for Mr. Sawchuk to recover from the heartbreak.

“I thought I was a medal contender,” he said.

“I was bitter for a very long time. Longer than I realized.”

Now, he worries about today’s athletes, should the protests against the host country’s human-rights records lead to a boycott of the Beijing Games this summer.

Mr. Sawchuk has in his thoughts these days the well-being of one hopeful athlete to whom his family has grown close.

He does not want her to go through what he did.

Born in 1959 in the Manitoba village of Roblin, Mr. Sawchuk’s father managed the local lumber store. Transfers to Thompson and Dauphin followed, before the family settled in the twin cities now known as Thunder Bay, Ont.

A doctor treating knees injured while skiing suggested the boy take up swimming. He joined the Thunderbolts club under the tutelage of Don Talbot, a no-nonsense Australian who had coached the national team of his homeland. The tough Aussie, who wore close-cropped hair, was old school, not above cuffing his teenage charges to end their hijinx. His harsh methods paid off. The club sent eight swimmers to the 1976 Olympics at Montreal, including a 17-year-old youth who had been competing for just two years.

He remembers striding into the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies, the rest of the parade lost in a reverie of disbelief.

“Montreal was a blur. There were these people I’d seen on television — Nadia Comaneci and (Vasily) Alexeyev, the weightlifter — and here I am in the same food lineup in the Olympic Village.”

(For his sake, you hope he queued in the cafeteria behind the gymnastic sprite and ahead of the gargantuan Soviet strongman, a smorgasbord’s worst enemy.)

The pressure was overwhelming. He did not swim well until finding his stroke in a relay, only to be disqualified when a teammate was ruled to have splashed into the pool too soon.

The experience left him hungering for another Olympics.

He stayed in the pool. He ended the 1978 Commonwealth Games at Edmonton with seven medals —three gold, two silver, two bronze. Training was rigourous under Mr. Talbot, who had his swimmers join him at the Nashville Aquatic Club in training for the Moscow Olympics.

Mr. Sawchuk boarded with a wealthy family. He lived amid Picassos on the walls, gold faucets in the bathrooms, and a maid whose duties included providing after-session snacks in the television room.

“The pool house was bigger than my house in Thunder Bay,” he said.

On one of their endless days of training, Mr. Sawchuk visited the home where his friend Graham Smith boarded. The two swimmers relaxed before the day’s workout by tossing a baseball in the backyard.

Mr. Smith went inside to take a telephone call. Mr. Sawchuk remembers his friend returning to the backyard with news.

“We’re not going,” he said.

“We’re not going to the workout?”

“We’re not going to Moscow. We’re not going.”

A reporter in Ottawa had called seeking reaction to the announcement of a Canadian boycott of the upcoming Olympics. The swimmers had been confident the Canadian government would not kowtow to the American campaign. The decision left them dumfounded.

Mr. Sawchuk drove to the aquatic club in a daze. “I was so fuzzed out I nearly crashed twice on the way. Missing stop signs, stuff like that.”

The coach insisted they complete the day’s training session. Pumped with adrenaline, Mr. Sawchuk swam as fast as he ever had. “I absolutely crushed the set,” he said.

That night, he loaded his truck and drove north for Canada. Without the Olympics, there was no point in training, no point in sacrificing, no point in staying in Tennessee. He left in such a hurry he did not have enough cash to cover the fine for a speeding ticket picked up at 3 a.m. in the Indiana countryside. The police officer threatened him with a stay in the hoosegow until Mr. Sawchuk convinced him to accept a payment by credit card.

The disappointed Olympians were later presented with commemorative T-shirts, leather passport holders and “other gifties” at a ceremony in Ottawa, none of which did much to ease Mr. Sawchuk’s bitter disappointment. When a swim meet in Hawaii was announced as a consolation for missing the Olympic competition, Mr. Sawchuk skipped the event to instead go on a pack trip. He rode for days in the hills surrounding Thunder Bay, his only companion in the backcountry solitude a magnificent Arab gelding called Shar.

Officials punished his insubordination by removing his name from the list of Olympic squad. He was kicked off an Olympic team not going to the Olympics. Some punishment. He was later reinstated after teammates protested.

The athletes were in a tough situation. Diane Jones-Konihowski’s first reaction to the Liberal government’s boycott was to insist she would compete as an individual. She was denounced in some quarters as a “Red” for her defiance.

Athletes from other Canadian allies such as Britain, Australia and Denmark competed at Moscow. Four years later, Communist countries boycotted the Olympics at Los Angeles, opening the door for some Western athletes to win medals they might not have otherwise.

The 1980 Canadian team members are Canada’s forgotten Olympians. Some, such as Charmaine Crooks, now a member of the VANOC board of directors, got to compete at four other Olympic Games. Others lost their one chance at the podium.

Mr. Sawchuk had a reputation as a quiet student at the University of Florida until the day he lost it when the professor spoke favourably about the Moscow boycott.

“It did nothing,” Mr. Sawchuk insisted. “You guys were going to have a grain embargo, a technology embargo. But you kept selling grain and you kept selling technology. The athletes got ripped off.”

These days, the 49-year-old Mr. Sawchuk sells aquatic supplies. He is happily settled on a hobby farm in Whonnock, part of Maple Ridge, with his wife, Elly, a member of the Abbotsford police department, and their two teenagers.

He called his children at school the other day to share the exciting news that their friend, the swimmer Stephanie McDougall, had qualified for the Paralympics.

Now, he worries what happened to him might happen to her.

He’s not unsympathetic to the protests. “We know China is not perfect and I don’t think China is doing well by Tibet,” he said. He does not think athletes should bear the burden of protest.

His advice to today’s Olympians: “Train your ass off. What’s going to happen is going to happen. It’s out of your control. Just get ready to go. And pray it never happens.”

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