By Rita Mingo
There are few good things to come out of having cancer, but Genevieve Saumur did indeed take something away from that trial.
“It made me a better athlete advisor,” Saumur explains. “I was a bit alone and I promised myself that I didn’t want any athlete to feel alone. Even though I had a great support system, they couldn’t understand what it was like to be in isolation.
“It doesn’t have to be cancer … you could be diabetic or injured. Whatever your challenges, it made me realize that sometimes even though you have a team, there are moments you’ll be alone. I wanted to be the person they would call and say ‘Hey, I’m alone’ and I would pretty much understand their challenge.”
Saumur, a former Canadian Olympic swimmer, was recently named one of five Beijing 2022 athlete mentors.
“I’m absolutely flattered and humbled,” the 33-year-old says. “Reliving the great memories that I had at my own Olympic Games, accompanying the athletes, I’m pretty excited about it.”
It’s really up her alley as she is an advisor (on maternity leave) with Alliance Sport-Etudes in Montreal, where she counsels student-athletes. Prior to that, she was with the Institut National du Sport du Quebec, aiding athletes who were transitioning out of sports.
She describes her role with Beijing 2022 as helping athletes navigate this momentous occasion.
“Especially now, it’ll be unusual Games,” she points out. “And some stuff might be harder to predict or prepare. We want them to enjoy these moments. It’s really one of the greatest experiences of their life. I think we want them to be really focused on their performances but also not missing out on taking it all in. We’re basically there to share our own experience and try to make sure they live their own experience to their full potential, either in their own performance or afterwards, managing the stress and all of that. I’m excited to work with these athletes.”
Saumur has her own history to draw from, owning a wealth of international experience. At the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships, she helped the 4×100 freestyle relay team set a Canadian record 3:41.83 en route to a silver medal. She won a bronze in the same race at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Then at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the relay team finished eighth, while individually in the 200-m freestyle she was 25th. She also competed at the 2007 and 2009 FINA world championships.
But as she was preparing for the 2012 Games in London, she received news no one wants to receive. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Initially, she handled it as anyone would.
“I cried a shitload,” she now says with a laugh. “But after that, I think I had a great support system … a great boyfriend (Rémi Lavoie, now her husband), a great family and great friends. My friends were still swimming and they wanted to be there for me and I wanted to be there for them because they were still trying to get to 2012 in London.”
She matter-of-factly describes her torturous one-year journey.
“It was really tough because I had some treatments just before the opening ceremonies, my radiation, and once you have radiation you have to be in isolation for a week and a half,” she begins. “You can’t be around anyone. So I went to my parents’ house and I lived in the basement and my dad was making me lunch and breakfast and leaving it for me.
“The first day that I was there, I wake up and it’s the opening ceremonies in London. So now it’s pretty tough. That was the lowest point because it was during my treatment and I had to be alone so for this week and a half, two weeks, all I did was watch the Olympics. I would watch fencing or equestrian – something I didn’t know much about – and I would cry because I thought I should be there to do my sport. Of course, I watched swimming and I would scream so hard for every Canadian.
“But you know what, as hard as it was, once the opening ceremonies were over, I was kind of done. I knew that London was my last Olympics, my last chance, and I would be done afterwards. So once London was done, I just figured I missed it, I’ll never go back to the Olympics.”
Instead of battling to make the team, to lower her race time, Saumur was battling to survive. That’s where her tools as an elite athlete kicked in.
“It was always one step at a time,” she said. “You do your surgery and then you do radiation … little training camps … this is what I’m doing today, that’s how I fight and the next day will get better and I’ll fight again. Luckily, I didn’t have to do chemo so that was a big win for me.”
It’s that roadblock that curtailed her career in the pool which propels her now, gives her motivation as she accepts her newest challenge.
“I know how precious this experience is and if you miss it, how hard it is,” relates Saumur, now a mom to three-and-a-half year old Renaud and four-month-old Charlie. “I did my 2008 Olympics and … I remember it was so hard to take it all in and enjoy it because you’re so stressed. Then looking back and if I had known it was my only chance to participate, I think I would have tried to enjoy it more.
“Listen to the crowd and feel my goosebumps and be present. I think that motivates me to help them be in the present and not knowing what’s going to happen in the future. Make sure you really enjoy the good and the bad and the hard and the soreness and the winning and everything. It’s all part of the great souvenir you’ll have.
“I don’t know how I’ll manage to be away from my kids to be at the Olympics,” she adds, “but I’ll do it. I think once I’m there, I’ll be fully there.”