Happier Malar ready for Sydney
By JIM MORRIS -- Canadian Press
On a hot summer day, with bright sunlight reflecting off the sparkling blue waters of an outdoor swimming pool, Joanne Malar smiled and spoke about happiness.
The 24-year-old pushed her sunglasses up on her nose, stretched out cat-like in a chair, and talked about love and her future.
"Realistically, it's my last Olympics," said Canada's best bet for a swimming medal next month in Sydney.
"You never want to say for sure. My plan is not to have a plan."
Asked if wedding plans were in the works, Malar grinned and said "nothing definite."
When Malar looks into a pool, she sees the reflection of a women confident in her ability to win a medal in both the 200- and 400-metre individual medley, not the over-hyped, insecure swimmer who waded into the water at Atlanta four years ago.
"Four years ago feels like an eternity," said Malar, a Hamilton native.
"I've grown up and changed a lot. As a person I know more who I am, what I want out of life."
Malar went into the 1996 Olympics being told she was a medal contender, despite not being ranked in the world's top three in either event. The cameras loved her big smile, while her invigorating personality made her a marketing dream.
Only 20, she basked in the spotlight, pushing her own self doubts to the shadows.
"I loved it. I dove into it," she said with a chuckle of remorse.
"I got a lot of exposure. With the media and exposure, somehow I had a lot of expectations on myself."
Inside the smiling facade, doubts ate away at Malar.
"I was so scared," she remembered. "I thought there was no way I could succeed. I had all these expectations for gold but I didn't believe I could get a gold."
Malar finished ninth in the 400 IM and fourth in the 200. Both races were won by Ireland's Michelle Smith deBruin who passed drug tests at the Games but was banned from competition in 1998 for four years for doctoring urine samples with alcohol.
"Fourth place for me was fantastic and it should have been third," Malar said.
"It's weird when people still sum up my Olympic experience as a disappointment. I knew myself I was proud of coming fourth in the whole world."
Malar returned home seriously thinking about quitting swimming. The sport wasn't fun any more. The revelations about Smith deBruin soured her more.
"I hate that there's cheating and a lot of it goes undetected," she said.
"It's a bitterness that I didn't get that medal placed around my neck at a time when it would have made a world of difference too me."
Malar's resurrection began when she moved to Calgary to train under Jan Bidrman at the National Sport Centre at the University of Calgary. Her first break through came with a gold medal in the 400 IM at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.
For Malar, it was like embracing an old love.
"I made myself proud. That was the big turning point," she said.
"It wasn't to get the glory or for the press to be happy, it was because I loved it."
Last year Malar won three gold medals at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, then won both the 400 and 200 IM at the Pan Pacific Championships, in the same pool which will host the Olympics.
Away from the pool, Malar has found stability in her personal life by developing a relationship with Mike Morreale, a slotback with the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
"I think that's also why I'm so at ease with my life," she said.
"I have this great relationship that I know, when swimming is over, I'm going to start a new life with somebody. It's nice that there's somebody that is going to love me regardless of medals."
Olympic swim coach Dave Johnson has watched Malar's metamorphosis.
"She knows the game a lot better now than she did before," Johnson said.
"It's experience and also she's a more mature and settled athlete at this point."
Of the two races, Malar's best chances for gold are in the 400 IM, where she'll be challenged by Yara Klochkova of the Ukraine and Japan's Yasuko Tajima.
In the 200 IM, world record-holder Wu Yanyan has been dropped from China's team following a positive drug test. Again, Malar will face Klochkova, Japan's Tomoko Hagiwara, Cristina Teuscher of the U.S. and teammate Marianne Limpert who now lives in Vancouver.
Going to Sydney, Malar's shoulders are broad enough to carry a country's expectations and her personality strong enough to cope with the pressures.
"I know the Olympics are coming, I know it's the biggest meet of my life, again," she said.
"I'm going to be fighting for a medal, but whether I get one or not, the last thing I want to do is come home upset. I'm determined to come home with my head up high.
"I just want to have a great race. I could do a best time and not get a medal. Will that be disappointing? I don't think so."