Elaine Tanner, nicknamed “Mighty Mouse,” is the first Canadian woman to win an Olympic medal in swimming. Despite setting five world records during her career and winning three of Canada’s five medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, she was unable to win the gold medal she was favoured to claim; in the face of intense media criticism, she retired from swimming at the age of 18 feeling like she failed her country, sparking a struggle with depression. Today, she is an author, an advocate, a grandmother, and a member of the Order of Canada. She writes this letter to Penny Oleksiak, who won four medals—including one gold—at the 2016 Olympics in Rio at the age of 16, and is now competing at the World Swimming Championships.
I am writing these words today as if I almost know you, yet I have only had the privilege of meeting you once. Although we may be a few generations and many miles apart, we do share a very unique thread which intertwines us.
You are now standing where I once stood some 50 years ago. Much has changed since then, but the simple words of truth and wisdom never will.
You are still so very young, and yet you have achieved so much in such a relatively short time. This is all quite exciting and satisfying. However, with this meteoric rise in the public eye comes an inconvenient cost. I have a sense that, despite your brilliant successes, you do not wish to be arbitrarily placed on a pedestal. Sudden fame is a double-edged sword and alas, you now carry that heavy yoke on your young shoulders. This was not, I’m sure, part of your plan.
I can totally relate to this unease at being forced into the limelight especially at your age. Having tread a similar path as a young teenager myself, I have the luxury of hindsight on the road that may lay ahead of you. Every individual path is unique, I realize—but there are also many similarities as well.
I can almost guarantee that you will at times feel pushed and pulled in too many directions all at once. Perfect strangers will try to impose their expectations and, worse still, their judgments on your performances. Others will try to ride your coattails as fair-weather friends; sometimes the media will get carried away trying to predict how your future should unfold. The curse of expectation seems to shadow major success, and as you compete at the world championships, armchair quarterbacks have watched with bated breath after you just missed the podium in the 100-metre butterfly.
But being the fourth-fastest in the world is still nothing to apologize for. And your amazing performance in Rio is a very difficult act to follow—and that’s exactly what made it so sensational.
No one can ever walk in your shoes, Penny. No one can truly know your inner thoughts and deepest wishes. No one knows how hard you train—the tears and laughter as well as the doubts and fears before a big event. Only you know. Trust in yourself. Listen to your own inner voice as it will guide you should you feel confused or conflicted.
Your life is your own to choose and experience. Do not lose sight of who you truly are as a complete person, not just as a swimmer or athlete. You are not a one-dimensional person in your talents nor interests, so don’t be afraid to spread your wings even as you chase your dreams. Allow yourself time to be with your family and friends and just have fun. Explore your world, and be open to learning new things and growing. Keep hold of the reins of your life, as it is yours alone to lead.
Take risks by all means, and very importantly, do not be afraid to fail. Disappointments and falling short of a goal are the basic and necessary components to your ultimate successes. There is no shame in failure if you can honestly say that you have done your best. You cannot live your life purposefully and joyfully worrying about what others think or expect of you, for at the end of each day, it is only our own reflection that we see mirrored back.
Always remember when you feel outward pressure and tension that you first chose to swim because you found joy in doing it. It is vital that you keep that flame of desire burning within you as it serves as fuel for your passion to compete.
Yes, there will come a day when the fires of competition and swimming pools will eventually flicker out. Remember that you have a long, full life ahead, and that swimming and sport will just be written as a few chapters on your journey.
The races and medals will all come and go, and so will the crowds. But the memories and self-satisfaction of chasing your dream will always remain within you.
No one can take that away from you. You have genuinely earned it.
Ultimately, you will learn that your worth as a person can never be measured by achievements alone. Your self-worth is not measured by the sweep of a clock, nor the colour of your medals.
We are all here to experience and grow in wisdom regardless of what we may choose to do or accomplish. The lasting legacy you leave is not what you have received, but in what you have given.
I hope these simple words and my message will resonate at this juncture in your inspiring and amazing journey. Canada is very proud of who you are and how you serve as a bright light to others who aspire to follow in your footsteps. Blaze a trail, be fearless, and—most importantly—just be you.
With warmest wishes,
Elaine “Mighty Mouse” Tanner, OC