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

Montreal Gazette - - Sports - DAVE STUBBS THE GAZETTE

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.

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