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A star at 17, swimming pioneer Tanner reflects on turning 70

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By Jim Morris

When Elaine Tanner looks out the window of her home on Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., she doesn’t see snow and cold. She sees a postcard complete with squirrels feeding and cardinals perched in a tree.

“I’ve never left childhood in my imagination,” said the winner of three Olympic medals, who is also an author and mental health advocate. “I’m always living with a sense of wonder. I guess that’s why I’m open to change and to learning and growing.”

One of the best swimmers Canada ever produced, Tanner’s view of the world has been forged by fires that threatened to destroy her but only made her stronger. She has emerged from the darkness to find light and happiness.

“There is no perfect moment in your life,” she said. “There’s only one moment at a time, there’s only the present moment.

“I have learned through trial and tribulation and many mistakes, that the happiness that I’m going to experience is my choice of how I think in the moment that I’m living in. Maybe the circumstances around me are out of my control. You have to let those go. You can’t hold onto them because they’ll take you down a rabbit hole you’ll never get out of.”

Tanner celebrates her 70th birthday today. To her, age is irrelevant. It’s the lessons learned on the journey that are important.

“Age really doesn’t mean a lot,” she said. “It’s just the number they stick on you.

“I have gained so much wisdom on this journey. It was a very gradual thing. I didn’t have any epiphanies in my life. It took me decades to turn over the stones of my life and turn them into stepping stones rather than blocks. It just kind of awakened a little bit at a time. All of a sudden you look back and see how far you’ve come.”

One way Tanner hopes to share the life lessons she has learned is through the children’s book she has written, titled Monkey Guy and the Cosmic Fairy.

The book was written for Tanner’s three grandchildren but has a message adults will appreciate. The story deals with “kindness and love” and “has many life lessons.”

Tanner has given away thousands of copies of the book to children’s hospitals, Christmas funds, health authorities and recently nursing staff and first responders dealing with COVID-19.

“My reward comes from the response I get from people who are so grateful and thankful,” she said. “There are things far greater in life than the almighty dollar. When we get that message, this world will be a different place.”

Nicknamed “Mighty Mouse” for her five-foot-three stature, Tanner was just 17 when she accomplished a feat no other Canadian woman had done before when she earned a silver medal in the 100-metre backstroke at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. She also finished second in the 200-m back and was part of the bronze medal 4×100 freestyle relay team.

Despite being the first Canadian triple medallist, and the first Canadian to win a swimming medal since 1928, not winning gold made Tanner a failure in some people’s eyes.

She retired from swimming at age 18 and her life began a downward spiral. Tanner struggled with mental illness, suffered from depression, anxiety, panic attacks and battled anorexia.

Looking back, Tanner believes she was suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Back in the 60’s, we didn’t know what post-trauma was,” she said.

“I was free floating. I had no idea what I was dealing with. I was scared, I didn’t know who I was, didn’t know what was going on in my brain. I looked the same, but I didn’t feel the same.”

By 1988 she was sleeping in her car in Vancouver and contemplating suicide. It was around that time she met her future husband John Watt.

“We were fated to meet,” she said. “I call him my knight in rusty armour. He saved me but he had his own baggage. We went on this amazing spiritual journey. I never could have done it without him.”

Having experienced dark times in the past helps Tanner deal with living in a pandemic.

“There’s no guarantees for tomorrow for anybody, especially (with) COVID, but I don’t think negative thoughts,” she said. “Today is the only day I can think of and control. I chose to be content, be happy and make the most of the moments I have.”

Tanner and Watt split their time between living in Ontario and B.C. A two-time winner of the Lou Marsh Award, a recipient of the Order of Canada and a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, International Aquatic Hall of Fame, Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame and Swimming Canada’s Circle of Excellence, Tanner is proud of her legacy.

“I was a pioneer,” she said. “I have become really proud of that girl who was a swimmer.

“I’m so proud of how she pioneered and helped inspire other swimmers. All of the beautiful swimmers that we have today, I feel part of that. I’m part of the footprints that kind of led the way.”

The 70-year-old Tanner also knows what she would say to her 17-year-old self.

“Trust in yourself,” said Tanner. “Believe in yourself. You’re far more than a kid on the starting blocks. Your life is going to be full of other things. You have a lot more chapters to write, so don’t get hung up on this.

“I would give her a big hug.”