It’s now been six weeks since the entire world of sport abruptly ground to a complete halt.
As the global community struggles to curb the advance of COVID-19 and the spread of the coronavirus, we watch, wait, and reflect on the enormous congregating power of sport which we often take for granted.
Until competition begins again, many of us can only look back at some of the events we, as fans, have savoured in the recent past and the accomplishments of so many talented athletes which are worth remembering.
Episode No. 6 of Olympic Games Replay features diving competition from the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was the first Olympic gathering since the 1996 Games in Atlanta without Canada’s most decorated international divers, Alexandre Despatie and Emilie Heymans.
Still, in Rio, the Canadian team was led by a group of talented women from the province of Quebec who came to be known as the “Fab Four.”
Pamela Ware, Jennifer Abel, Roseline Filion, and Meaghan Benfeito entered the Games all having won medals at various world championships. Benfeito, Filion and Abel were attending their third Olympics and all had been medallists in synchro events at London 2012.
Hopes were high that the Canadian divers could build on a history which had seen them win 13 medals since their sport came onto the Olympic program for the men in St. Louis in 1904 and for the women in Stockholm in 1912.
With the exception of Hamilton, Ontario’s Irene MacDonald’s bronze medal in the 3m springboard event at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia, and British Columbian Blythe Hartley’s bronze in the 10m synchronized competition at the Athens Games in 2004, all of the Canadian podium finishes had been recorded by athletes from Quebec.
In 1984 Quebec City’s Sylvie Bernier became the last non-Chinese diver to win Gold in the 3m springboard at Los Angeles. But the other medallists including Anne Montminy, Annie Pelletier, Emilie Heymans and Alexandre Despatie became household names in la Belle Province.
In Rio, diving competitions were held at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre named after the first South American woman to compete at the Olympic Games. Lenk was a world-record holding swimmer who represented Brazil at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles and is regarded as one of the country’s greatest female athletes of all-time.
The diving facility was outdoors in Rio de Janeiro and on the day of the women’s 10m synchronized platform final the water turned a murky green, the result of cleaners mistakenly adding 160 litres of hydrogen peroxide into the tank prior to competition.
‘A match made in heaven’
The Canadians, Meaghan Benfeito and Roseline Filion, who was coming back after an ankle break the December before the Games, won their second consecutive bronze medal at the Olympics after claiming bronze in the same event four years earlier in London.
“Roseline is one of the most impressive divers in Canadian history because of her grit and determination,” said Blythe Hartley, who provided analysis for CBC of the diving competitions in Rio.
“She became one of the best in the world exclusively through hard work and being relentless. Roseline exceeded everyone’s expectations throughout her career, which is why she is one of the greatest in Canadian history.”
For Filion, it was a last international competition and the end of 12-year partnership with Meaghan Benfeito. The two had first been on the world championship podium together in 2005 at home in Montreal.
“Rio was definitely the biggest challenge of my career. Many months of anxiety turned into mental toughness and eventually made me a stronger competitor. I ended up wanting it more and I had the best partner in Meaghan to go through it with. Now we have memories that we will cherish forever.”
And on the green water situation, Filion shrugged as she recalled how she and Benfeito overcame the distraction.
“Meaghan and I thought it was a bit gross,” she laughed. “But we told ourselves … in the water, close your eyes, close your mouth and it will be fine!”
“The green pool was memorable and definitely odd,” said Hartley. “But if you worried about it or expended energy focusing on it, it would impact your performance. The best divers know how to filter out distractions and focus on what is within their control – their dives. If you focus on the distraction, the Olympic moment will pass you by.”
In Rio she put together a strong performance and at long last claimed the first individual Olympic medal of her career by finishing with the bronze behind two heavily favoured Chinese divers.
Almost as important as winning the medal was Benfeito’s realization that the Chinese divers might be assailable when she competes at her fourth Olympics in Tokyo in the summer of 2021.
“The Chinese divers are amazing,” Benfeito conceded in a Zoom interview from her home in Montreal. “They are terrific athletes, nice people and wonderful role models, but I know they can be beaten.”
Heartbreak for Abel
These were the only two medals that Canadian divers won in Rio, but coming close twice was Jennifer Abel who had won bronze in London with Emilie Heymans in the 3m synchronized event.
The first near-miss in Brazil was in the same 3m synchronized competition with her then-partner Pamela Ware. They finished fourth, eight tenths of a point off the podium. And then Abel was again a close fourth in the individual 3m springboard final.
WATCH | Abel sharpened by disappointments:
She too will be competing at her fourth Olympics in Tokyo and will head to the Games as Canada’s most decorated world championship diver having amassed ten total medals over the course of her remarkable career.
“I know Jennifer was really disappointed with the fourth place outcomes,” Blythe Hartley reasoned.
“However, I think it has provided her with some perspective that has benefitted her and made her even better leading up to the 2021 Olympics. She continues to be one of the most impressive divers in the world and is definitely a gold medal contender in Tokyo.”
Diving at the Olympics has been dominated by athletes from China since they first re-entered the modern Games in Los Angeles in 1984. But in that span their most consistent rivals have come from Canada — and Rio 2016 proved that point again.
The pool of diving talent in this country remains deep heading to the next Olympic gathering.
Olympic Games Replay will stream on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on CBCSports.ca as well as air across the CBC television network. Check your local listings for the time in your region.