Only a couple of months before my fourth birthday, Canada hosted the Olympics for the first time in its history, and the 1976 Summer Games would have a huge impact on me, my family and the city of Montreal for decades to come.
First of all, even though I was too young to recognize it at the time, Montreal was picking up some important new infrastructure in order to host the Summer Games, particularly Olympic Stadium. “The Big O” hosted baseball’s Montreal Expos and the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes for decades; sadly, the Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2004 and the Alouettes moved to Percival Molson Memorial Stadium in the 2015 CFL season. Today, only Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact still plays Olympic Stadium regularly.
Montreal’s municipal government and taxpayers would feel the Games’ financial pinch long after the torch was passed on to Moscow for the ill-fated 1980 Olympiad. Mayor Jean Drapeau had famously declared that “the Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby.” Montreal Gazette cartoonist Terry Mosher, alias Aislin, quickly caricatured a very pregnant Drapeau; the $1.5-billion Olympic debt would not be fully paid off until 2006, seven years after Drapeau’s death.
Back at the Summer Olympics themselves, a 14-year-old Romanian gymnast was captivating the world and charting a course that would inspire my not-yet-one-year-old sister. Nadia Comaneci’s seven perfect 10’s and four-medal performance were defining sports moments for many, including my sister Colleen Bona, who idolized Comaneci while putting together her own gymnastics routines as a teenager and has encouraged a Comaneci-like work ethic for her daughter Mullen, who is now in her eighth year with the Valley Cheer Athletics program in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.
As for me, all the Olympics meant were the lengthy absence of my favourite shows – The Friendly Giant, Mr. Dress-Up and Sesame Street – from the airwaves of the host broadcaster, CBC. What was the big deal about all these strangers running and jumping and swimming and doing all this athletic stuff? Didn’t they know Friendly and Rusty and Jerome had stories to tell and Mr. Dress-Up had pictures to draw? What was wrong with these people, anyway?
And then, the little boy who learned to swim at Grande-Greve Beach two summers earlier got his first look at televised aquatic competition, and was especially blown away by the last hurrah for Italian Klaus Dibiasi and his fellow competitors in the Olympic diving competition.
I had never seen anything like platform diving before, and four-year-old Adam was mesmerized. They’re going up so high! And now they’re spinning in the air! While falling into the water! But they straighten out their bodies just before they reach the water! And now the cameras are showing them UNDER the water! And they look completely calm before, during, and after that underwater part! What madness was this?!?
Now, I didn’t suddenly go out and become a competitive diving prodigy. It would be another five years before I would see regular time at a swimming pool – at SAERC in Port Hawkesbury, a 40-minute car ride away – and I managed to string together just enough bellyflop-free plunges to fill the diving requirements for the eight levels of Canada’s Red Cross swimming course during my elementary school years. But I have always been drawn to the strength, agility and determination shown by competitive divers, and Canada has given me a lot to cheer about in that regard over my lifetime.
They’ve shown great generosity in encouraging younger athletes, as well. I remember 1984 Olympic gold medalist Sylvie Bernier as much for her pool session with a wide-eyed young diver (above, center) on CTV’s Thrill Of A Lifetime as much as I remember her heroics in Los Angeles only a few months earlier. And I’m delighted to see that Anna Dacyshyn (below) – who won me over during my teenage years to the point that I’ll come clean and admit to a schoolboy crush on her – is now the official provincial coach for Dive Ontario, that province’s leading advocacy group for the springboard-and-platform set.
For my money, few Canadian divers have shown the versatility – in and out of the pool – of Montreal’s Anne Montminy (below), a member of the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame. A gold medalist at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, B.C. and the 1995 Pan Am Games in Argentina, she truly amazed me with her partnership with fellow Quebec native Emilie Heymans (below, upside-down, left) in the first-ever Olympic synchronized diving event, as the pair took silver in the event’s debut at the 2000 Summer Games at Sydney, Australia. (Watch it here, and prepare to have your head spin.) That silver medal came on the 10-meter platform, where Montminy also won a bronze medal for her individual performance at the same Olympics.
Lest you make the mistake of thinking Anne Montminy’s talents are limited to pools and platforms, consider this: She picked up her law degree from the Universitie de Montreal in 1999 (while still active in diving) and became a member of the California Bar, having practiced law at two San Francisco firms after kick-starting her legal career in her native Montreal. She’s also a former vice-president at the U.S. financial firm Goldman Sachs (in an unrelated note, here’s the official announcement for her 2002 wedding to Daniel Sachs Goldman), and as of last year, she has served as a New York-based manager for National Futures Association. Her considerable talent, skills and tenacity also belie a sense of humour that she displayed in this commercial that tied into her 1996 Olympic participation in Atlanta. (Watch it to the end for Montminy’s unexpected tag-line.)
(Above right: Quebec cartoonist Roland Pier depicts Anne Montminy’s then-new career as a lawyer. The gag’s English translation: “You know, Your Honour, I’ve seen higher-ranked judges than you in my life!”)
Following Montminy’s retirement from competitive diving, Edmonton native Blythe Hartley (below) became Emilie Heymans’ new partner in the synchro event, and the pair won bronze at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. Like Montminy, Hartley has returned to the pool as a TV diving commentator, originally doing Olympic duty for CTV before joining the CBC broadcast team for the 2016 Rio Games. And why not? As you can see below, Hartley can even smile while she’s diving! (I’ll always find that impressive, given that most of my attempts at dives include panicked expressions connected to my desperation to avoid bellyflops.)
For the ultimate blend of athleticism and on-camera ease among Canadian divers, however, look no further than Laval-born Alexandre Despatie. A two-time Olympic medalist, scoring silver at Athens in 2004 and Beijing, China in 2008, Despatie is also the first – and so far, the only – diver to win World Championship titles in three separate categories (the one-metre and three-metre springboards, and the ten-meter platform). He also has nine Commonwealth Games gold medals and four Pan Am Games gold medals; Despatie might have even added to these impressive accomplishments were it not for a 2012 head injury that occurred while he was training for a competition in Madrid, Spain, an event that no doubt hastened his retirement from diving the following year.
(Above left: Alexandre Despatie with a handful of his Commonwealth Games gold medals. Above right: Despatie in full flight – now THAT’s intensity!)
Perhaps spurred on by this 2006 appearance on CBC’s Rick Mercer Report, the fluently-bilingual Despatie has enjoyed a post-diving career in broadcasting and media, most notably as co-host of the Montreal edition of Breakfast Television between 2013 and 2016, in addition to stints as a French-language Olympic analyst for Radio-Canada. He also took the plunge into the acting world in 2007, playing a diver (you ‘magine!) who becomes a mentor to a young female swimmer in the Quebec-shot film A vos marques! Party! (Translation: On Your Mark! Party!)
(Above: Alexandre Despatie’s underwater relaxation techniques. Rumour has it that he also did this every morning before going on the air at Breakfast Television in Montreal.)
So, to these and many other Canadian divers, thanks for the inspiration. Signed, the little boy who was so blown away all those years ago, sitting in front of the Montreal Olympic coverage on his parents’ TV in rural Cape Breton.