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Monday, September 25, 2000

Lost: A golden opportunity

  SYDNEY -- There was one dive left for gold and almost nothing to choose from between the Canadian and the American, almost nothing except a lifetime of socialization.

 Americans are taught to win.

 Canadians are taught to do their best.

 Americans think gold and only gold.

 Canadians think podium, maybe, hopefully, on a good day.

 There was one dive left for gold on a Sunday night at the Olympic Aquatic Centre, with the unlikely American Laura Wilkinson in first place, a quarter point ahead of Pointe-Claire's Anne Montminy. One woman expected to be on the podium at the 10-metre competition, the other not.

 Montminy nailed her dive.

 Wilkinson did almost as well.

 So much of the difference coming in attitude: Wilkinson had pre-selected a dive with a high degree of difficulty for her final attempt. Montminy had played it relatively safely.

 And when they stood on the podium and the wrong national anthem played, Montminy stood beside the gold medal winner -- not with a silver medal but with a bronze.

 Gold, maybe for just the second time of these Olympic Games, was right there for a Canadian athlete. Closer than it's been for anyone this side of Simon Whitfield. And then, just like that, there was only bronze.

 "I didn't think about the gold,'' said Montminy, sounding so very Canadian. "I was thinking second or third.''

 That's not what Wilkinson said and therein tells the story of the night. "My goal was not to just make the team but to medal, and not just to medal, but a gold one.''

 Montminy was thinking silver or bronze even though over the final five dives she had put herself in position to be the second Canadian to win gold at the Games. She was in third place after her first dive of the final round, second after her second, second after a difficult third dive and still second after her fourth. She was the most consistent diver in the field.

 "In the end, she didn't know whether to laugh or cry,'' said Canadian team coach Mitch Geller. "It (gold) was within reach. It was right there.''

 Maybe it was the quintessential Canadian athletic dilemma or maybe, just maybe, it was Anne Montminy's history coming back to bite her once again.

 She had gone to the Olympics in Barcelona and Atlanta and there was only one word to describe her performances -- disastrous. "I'm really happy for Anne this time,'' said her personal coach, Yi Hua Li. "It's her last Olympics. She screwed up her first two.''

 She didn't screw up here and that's the difficulty of a Sunday night in Sydney. She was good enough to win. She just couldn't close the way the American did. She just couldn't do the American thing.

 From the podium, as she looked at her medal, there was none of the usual teary-eyed excitement, almost no celebration. Truth was, she didn't know whether to be happy or sad. She shook hands, looked at her medal, waved her flag, listened to the American anthem, and then went off to do her interviews.

 "I feel,'' she said, "I might have missed out on gold.'' She said it and then corrected herself. Because the medal around her neck, whatever colour it happens to be, isn't just an Olympic medal for her. It's a lifetime achievement award. It's a culmination of years of work and opportunities gone wrong.

 "After disasters in her past two Olympics, I think she sort of figured it out,'' said Geller, the coach. "There was an interesting turn of events here.''

 Diving is almost a cruel sport. The pressure is intense. The mistakes allowed are few. Everything you do is instantly judged and your position depends on how you perform.

 "I have to know where I stand,'' said Montminy. "I'm one of those divers who studies the scoreboard. I have to know what I need and what other people need. Some divers don't like to know.''

 And in the end, it was a night of contradiction: Pride over winning a medal, disappointment over an opportunity missed.

 "I came here to get a medal,'' said Montminy, the Montreal lawyer and ever the pragmatist. "I feel like I deserved this. I rose to the occasion. I'm really pleased with myself, how I performed. I can't complain.

 "I've screwed this up so often. I didn't want to screw it up again.''