ELAINE TANNER'S THREE MEDAL PERFORMANCE IN 1968 ENDED A 40 YEAR DROUGHT
Jack Kelso, Ph.D.
Reprinted from SWIM Canada Magazine, July 1984
Elaine Tanner was a member of Canada's national swim team from 1965 to 1969.
She won a total of eight gold, eight silver, and one bronze medals in Commonwealth,
Pan-Am, and Olympic competition-the most by any Canadian woman swimmer in
She is the first Canadian athlete to have won three Olympic medals at one
Games until Gaetan Boucher's speed skating feats this past winter (in the
1984 Olympic Winter Games).
She is a member of four Sports Halls of Fame, including the International
Swimming Hall of Fame in the U.S.A.
She continues to keep up her sports activities on a personal level. She's
taken up squash and still hates to lose to anyone, a trait which she says
will always be part of her character.
Elaine's progression towards the Mexico City Olympics attracted great media
attention. She received a great deal of newspaper coverage, especially after
her four gold and three silver medals at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in
Kingston, Jamaica. At the time she was 15 years old.
She was a world-ranked backstroker for four years and at the time of the
1968 Games, she was second-ranked, but considered a favourite as top-ranked
Karen Muir was a South African and not allowed to compete at the Olympics.
The two had met on several occasions before the Games. At the Santa Clara
International in July of 1968, they split golds, with Muir winning the 100
back and Elaine the 200. There was little doubt that Elaine was the one
to beat at the upcoming Olympics in October.
The pre-Olympic training camp for the Canadian team was held in Banff, Alberta.
Elaine felt that this camp was certainly not up to her expectations. The
training seemed quite inadequate. She went to Mexico City with the feeling
that she was not as well-prepared as she should have been.
In the Olympic Village, she tried to settle in as best she could. Not an
easy thing to do with the constant media attention from the Canadian press.
The pressure to perform at the ultimate international level was, in her
own words, "brutal."
The 100 backstroke was Elaine's first event. She felt sure she would win.
Her closest rival, Kaye Hall, of Tacoma, Washington, had never beaten Elaine
in years of age group competition. The final was close, with 5/10ths separating
them. Hall won.
Elaine's recollections of the race are somewhat hazy but she reflects, "I
wanted to win the gold too much. I didn't swim my best. I was not pleased
with the way I swam the race."
Elaine's silver medal in this event was Canada's first Olympic swimming
medal since 1928.
The press created a depressing picture of the results and Elaine was deflated
at the reaction to her not winning the gold medal. She knew that she had
performed well, and in winning the silver she had accomplished a lot.
The two days before the 200 backstroke is now a complete blank. Elaine remembers
almost nothing except that there was not a lot of mental rehearsal for the
Again, she swam to a silver medal, this time beaten by another American,
Pokey Watson. Ironically, Watson held the world record in the 200 freestyle
two years previously, took up the 200 backstroke only during the summer
of 1968 as her only chance at a berth on the American team. Kaye Hall was
The final event for Elaine was a leg in the 4x100 freestyle relay. She remembers
this as her most exciting and rewarding swim. The Canadian team went on
to win the bronze medal, much to everyone's surprise.
She finished the Games on a mental high. She was pleased with her performances,
but naturally was disappointed at not having won a gold.
The following year she represented Canada at an international meet in Minsk
in the Soviet Union. She was the star of the meet winning two golds and
two silver medals. It was her final competition.
She had swum for ten years, all of it under the coaching of Howard Firby.
She was mentally tired of the whole competitive scene and could not see
staying with the training for another three years and the Munich Olympics.
She retired, after a brief exposure to university swimming while attending
the University of Alberta.
Elaine offers the following advice to first-time Olympians:
"Don't place too much emphasis on any one event. Don't ever feel that
a particular race is a 'now or never' situation. Put each race in its proper
perspective. It's just another race, one to be swum at your best, without
influence from anyone but yourself. You know how you prepare and how you
swim best. You know what it is that makes you swim well. Don't over-psych
yourself. Don't think about undue pressure. Don't get carried away with
the pressure. Do not believe what other people say or write about you, it
just adds to the pressure. Stay relaxed and do your own thing."
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