Courage, tears and a heart of gold
OLYMPIC MEMORIES Fifteen years after a judging error denied Sylvie Fréchette a gold medal in Barcelona, the swimmer lives a full life as a motivational speaker, volunteer, humanitarian, wife and mother
It’s been 15 years, and it’s been an hour, since synchronized swimmer Sylvie Fréchette’s surreal 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
Then 25, the native of Laval arrived in Spain that July with a shattered heart – her grandfather, around whom her world revolved, had died several months earlier, and then her boyfriend took his own life in their condominium only four days before her departure for the Games.
Fréchette paid her last respects and got on a plane to Barcelona, telling herself, “I’m alive, and I deserve to be.”
She swam brilliantly, but returned home with a silver medal, deprived of the solo-event gold she earned because a Brazilian judge recorded her score a full point lower than intended, then could not be understood by a Japanese official when she tried to correct the error.
Through it all, Fréchette never said a bad word, not about anyone or anything. While she privately wept a million tears, she showed the world only a thousand-watt smile.
Her story transcended sport, and her courage and grace in the face of heartache and enormous disappointment earned her the love, respect and admiration of her sport and of people who knew not a thing about it.
Sixteen months later, Fréchette traded her silver for gold in a Montreal Forum ceremony; the International Olympic Committee and FINA, the governing body of aquatic sports, corrected the judging error when pressed to do so by Montreal’s Dick Pound, then an IOC executive board member.
Today, when Fréchette tells her dramatic story to schoolchildren who weren’t yet born in 1992, her gold medal (with a team-event Olympic silver won in Atlanta four years later) is worn by her 61⁄ year-old daughter.
“Emma knows the rules,” Fréchette says, laughing. “Anyone can touch the medals. They just can’t take them off from around her neck.”
Daughter Maya, 21⁄ is sure to have her turn soon.
Of course Fréchette would freely share the symbols of her Olympic efforts. Her athletic and private lives have long been an open book, as they continue to be in her roles as a motivational speaker, volunteer, humanitarian, wife and mother.
She blissfully turned 40 six months ago, saying she feels 25 as she exudes a youngster’s energy and zest for life.
“Barcelona seems like yesterday, since I talk about it a lot as a speaker,” Fréchette says. “But it was 15 years ago, and in my body I don’t feel this way any more. I was almost lucky that this happened to me, not that it was great at the time. My story is remembered because it was different, perhaps emotional and human, and it touched people’s hearts in a different way.
“I wish I could turn back the clock and receive my gold medal while the water is still dripping down my neck, I’m still out of breath and the Barcelona sun is still on my skin. This I’ll never have, and that is a very precious moment in the career of an athlete – to receive your gold medal in front of the people who have just seen you perform the best routine of your life.
“But had I won in the traditional way, I’m not certain my gold medal would still have an impact on people, as it does.”
She has rich life experience postBarcelona, having hosted her own television show, written an autobiography and done nicely in business.
Famously, she spent eight years in Las Vegas as an artist, coach, artistic designer/choreographer and assistant artistic coordinator of the hugely successful Franco Dragone-conceived Cirque du Soleil aquatic show “O”.
The production still plays to sold-out crowds, and Fréchette returned to Las Vegas in July for two weeks to tweak the show and restore its original flavour.
It was in Vegas that she met theatrical sound engineer Pascal Van Strydonck, whom she married nearly seven years ago.
The family settled last December in Prévost, a corner-store address of 10,000 in the Laurentians north of Montreal.
Her “perfect house” reminds Fréchette a little of where she spent happy summers as a youngster in the country with her grandparents, having lost her father when she was three.
“It was where I would catch frogs and collect rocks and bugs and get dirty jumping in the mud, which is what my girls should be able to do,” she says.
For 13 months, Fréchette moved into sports administration as the Canadian Olympic Committee’s athlete programs manager. But she stepped down in February to refocus on her family and her speaking career.
In October, she gave talks in five Belgian cities over five days; this month, she spent two weeks in Niger, Africa, with Oxfam Quebec, an international development organization.
“Visiting Africa convinced me more than ever that I want to help change the world,” Fréchette says. “People can talk about HIV and AIDS and poverty, but now I can truly put a face on those things. I’m sure it’s going to take weeks for this experience to sink in.
“The worst question anyone can ask me is ‘What do you want?’ because I want everything. I trust life, and I’m the biggest, most naive baby on the planet.”
She owes her happiness, she says, to the lessons learned in sports, the experience of Barcelona a remarkable teacher.
“Sport is the most beautiful school of life, and it helped me develop all of my passions,” Fréchette says. “Sport is a fight, every step, against the judges and other participants. You’re tired, in pain, have no money, you’re missing school and getting up too early in the morning. It’s not smooth or easy, ever.
“Sport gave me focus, and helped me realize how passionate I can be about everything in my life.”
Sylvie Fréchette spent time with children in the Kouré region of Niger, Africa, during a trip with Oxfam Québec this month.