She was once hailed as Canada’s best athlete and Elaine Tanner has the accolades to prove it as a teenage swimming prodigy referred to as “Mighty Mouse” at Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan American games.
But her most cherished medal got here outside the pool. It’s a sterling silver Medal of Service, the forerunner to the present Officer of the Order of Canada medal.
When the Canadian government wanted it back, to change for the substitute honour, Tanner, now 71, refused. She says she will’t let it let go since it tells the story of her life.
Tanner went to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics overwhelmingly favoured to win gold. As a substitute, with the load of a nation on her 17-year-old shoulders, she got here home with two silvers, within the 100-metre and 200-metre backstroke, and a bronze within the 4×100-metre freestyle relay.
Tanner was devastated. At 18 she retired from competition. She suffered for years from panic attacks, eating disorders and depression.
Now, almost 55 years since Mexico, Tanner says from her Victoria-area home that she has turned losing gold into her best victory.
She says she hopes the way in which she emerged from the “black hole” that her life became after the Olympics can encourage other people facing hard times.
The service medal symbolizes that. She picked up the medal from a table covered with photos of her athletic achievements and explained the honour’s significance in her search for all times’s gold.
“I believed my big quest in life was to win gold on the Olympic Games, but I spotted that’s not the gold that hangs around your neck,” said Tanner.
“It’s the gold you mine inside yourself. That’s my message.”
In 1970, Tanner became the youngest Canadian to be awarded the Medal of Service, created to acknowledge exemplary achievement and repair to the nation.
The medal was introduced in 1967 and was awarded to 294 people before concerns about its modest appearance prompted a restructuring by the federal government in 1972, including the request to voluntarily return the award. It meant an excessive amount of to Tanner.
“My heart told me that that is the medal that was given to me by the federal government, actually by (former) governor general Roland Michener, and he pinned it on my dress, and I went, ‘This implies the world to me,’ and I don’t wish to hand it in,” said Tanner.
“I prefer it just the way in which it’s,” she said from her front room overlooking a marina. “I’m so glad I kept it.”
Tanner had gone to Mexico City as a sporting and cultural phenomenon.
She got the “Mighty Mouse” nickname in 1965 after winning her first Canadian national swim title within the 100-metre butterfly at age 14.
“I will need to have been four-foot-nine and possibly slightly below 90 kilos soaking wet,” said Tanner. “I used to be really small. I got up on the rostrum to receive my medal and the opposite girls were towering over me and a coach from Ocean Falls, the swim coach, yelled, ‘Method to go, Mighty Mouse.’
“The group laughed, and the media picked it up and it just stuck.”
More national titles, world records and gold medals at Commonwealth and Pan American games followed.
She was an unbackable favourite to win gold in Mexico City.
As a substitute, she placed second.
She could have been the primary Canadian woman to win any Olympic swimming medal, however the headlines were “Tanner loses gold,” she said.
Tanner said she returned from Mexico City an emotional and psychological wreck.
“Not only did I would like to win for myself and my family, I needed to win for Canada,” she said. “It was a heavy burden.… In my very own little mind, I let everybody down.”
Crawling out of the “black hole” took years.
“I struggled for therefore long,” said Tanner. “I actually did.”
She is now a mental health advocate and kids’s book writer and hopes she may also help others.
“All of us undergo challenges in life,” she said. “We’ll meet defeat but keep going. The important thing of life is to maintain going.”
Tanner wrote an open letter in 2017 to Olympic champion swimmer Penny Oleksiak, who won medals for Canada at 16 years old, advising to her to trust herself and take heed to her inner voice.
Tanner and Olympic ski champion Nancy Greene Raine are likely among the many few living Canadians who still have a Medal of Service, said Christopher McCreery, who has written a dozen books on Canadian orders, decorations and medals.
Of the unique 294 medals, 104 were returned within the early years, McCreery said. About 30 people kept their medals but most have died, he added.
“It’s an excellent rare, scarce medal and it’s a really unusual story because she was so young when she got it and clearly retained a terrific attachment to it,” he said in an interview from Halifax. “It’s not only the medal, it’s the story behind it.”
Tanner said that despite breaking five world records, winning gold at Commonwealth and Pan Am games, and winning the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top athlete on the age of 15, she considers the Medal of Service the prize that best honours her journey.
“It’s an emblem of all my accomplishments wrapped up in a single, from the country I did it for,” she said.