She puts on no airs, yet Émilie Heymans is an uncommon Olympian. No other female diver has made the podium in four consecutive Games, as the 30-year-old from St. Lambert, Que. did Sunday afternoon with a gritty performance in the three-metre synchronized diving final, along with her partner and fellow Quebecer Jennifer Abel.
She’s won medals now in almost every diving discipline, including a surprise 10-metre synchro silver in 2000; a bronze in the same event in 2004; and a silver in 10-metre individual in 2008. Her bronze with Abel in London was her first on a springboard. And while she’s never medalled in three-metre solo, she’ll be there as a long shot when the event starts Friday.
Her bucketload of hardware isn’t what really distinguishes Heymans, though, and here we get to a truth you won’t hear on an official TV broadcast: some athletes are just a whole lot more agreeable than others. Speaking to an over-represented contingent of Canadian reporters after her performance, Heymans wore her habitual look of wonderment, as if shocked we’d hang around to speak with her.
Why wouldn’t we? Not only does Heymans answer questions directly, she does so with candour, in both official languages. I’ve never seen her turn her back on a reporter, yet she’s immune to the sort of preening that afflicts some athletes who achieve even modest success.
Today, you’d never know she’d just chiseled her name into sporting history. She seemed more concerned for her much younger (and equally affable) partner Abel—and a trifle ticked at missing silver by 5.1 points. ”I’m glad I was able to win a fourth medal,” she smiled, nodding to Abel. “I think it takes pressure off of both our shoulders. We’re glad it’s over.”
She also had her mind on her team. Twelve minutes before she stepped onto the pool deck to compete, Heymans fired off a tweet in French that recalled Mark Messier’s legendary “guaranteed win” in the NHL. “Watch your TVs for the three-metre synchro,” went a rough translation. “Jennifer Abel and Émilie Heymans for the first medal for Canada! Houu!!”
Later, veteran journalists who’d watched an 18-year-old Heymans in Sydney gathered down in the mixed zone—the area in the pool basement, where reporters press up agains metal barriers to gather quotes from the medallists. The talk soon turned to Heymans’s future, notwithstanding her upcoming appearance in the three-metre solo event. For a moment, she turned wistful.
“Sport is my entire life,” she mused. “It’s what I’ve been doing since I was six years old. But the time I was seven I was training 20 hours a week. So it’s quite a big part of my life. I still have the individual competition. I’ll see if I’ll go for another year, or if I’m too tired. I still haven’t made a decision.”
The unspoken, if unsurprising message: this is Heymans’s last Olympics. She passes the torch now to the likes of Abel, fully 10 years her junior and a rising star in three-metre individual springboard.
As fate would have it, one of the pair’s opponents in today’s final stands a pretty good chance of one-upping Heymans’s record. Minxia Wu has now won three consecutive gold medals in synchro; if she pulls off the same feat in Rio di Janeiro in 2016, she’ll have not just four podium appearances but four straight championships.
Given the astonishing point spread Wu and partner Zi He put between themselves and their nearest competitors, that’s easy to imagine. They beat the American duo of Abigail Johnston and Kelci Bryant by 24 points.
But even if Wu rewrites the Olympic annals, Heymans’s name has a permanent home in the collective memory of Canadian sports fans—especially in that hothouse of diving excellence, Quebec. The pantheon that includes Sylvie Bernier, Annie Pelletier, Anne Montminy and Alexandre Despatie has a new charter member.
Émilie Heymans, take a bow.
Here’s how the Twitterverse responded to the victory: