One glorious day of cartwheels and back handsprings

Charlotte squares off against her nemesis - the balance beam. / Photo: Neale McDevitt
Charlotte squares off against her nemesis - the balance beam. / Photo: Neale McDevitt

By Neale McDevitt

My daughter Charlotte and I are watching the Olympics. She’s seven years old and a pretty good little gymnast and it’s the night before her Défi 3 – a simulated competition that gives kids her age a taste of the real thing. There are no medals, but there is plenty of judging, scoring and a pass/fail result at the end. I’m a 46-year-old ex-weightlifter 24 years removed from my last competition; the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland. Needless to say, we’re at opposite ends of our athletic careers.

Charlotte has been on pins and needles for weeks in anticipation of her Défi 3. I’ve hovered in the shadows, trying to gauge her mood and stressing the importance of effort and attitude over outcome. “The only thing that matters is that you try your best and have fun,” I tell her, channeling every after-school TV special ever made.

As I surf from one Olympic channel to the next, we come upon a report about the imminent failure of Canada’s Own the Podium program. Clips of barrel-rolling bobsleighs, face-planting ski-cross racers and lead-footed speed skaters are accompanied by a sombre voiceover outlining Team Canada’s almost Keystone Kop-esque ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The segment ends with a tearful Melissa Hollingsworth sobbing, “I feel like I have let my entire country down,” after the Canadian slider finished fifth in the women’s skeleton – an event she was expected to win.

Charlotte doesn’t like this turn of events. While she picks favorites for every race – sometimes based on nationality, but just as often for a colourful outfit or an exotic name – she always blurts “Oh no!” when someone crashes and burns. Even at seven she knows the disappointment that comes with putting in long hours in the gym only to come up short on game day. “I just hope I make my tricks on beam tomorrow,” she says hesitantly.

I go upstairs and find the crinkled plastic bag that has held my sports medals for the past two decades. Charlotte stumbled upon the bag in an old trunk a few years back and has been using the medals ever since to decorate her army of stuffed animals for acts of bravery performed in imaginary games. Aside from those won at major national and international competitions, I can’t even remember the stories behind most of these artifacts.

At the bottom of the bag I find what I am looking for – a square velvety case, like those that hold engagement rings, only larger. Inside I find the heavy medallion, one side gleams with Edinburgh Castle in relief, the other with the words 1986 Commonwealth Games, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Charlotte loves this thing because it is heavy, it comes in a case and it has a castle on it. I hate it because it represents my lowest moment as an athlete in which, with bronze in my sights, I faltered and finished fifth. This is not a medal, just a commemorative memento that was handed out to everyone at the Games. A thanks-for-coming booby prize. A Participaction millstone.

Back downstairs I sit beside Charlotte and hand her the medallion. I talk about my failure at the Games, talk about the various reasons athletes don’t always achieve their goals, talk about the disappointment of being labeled a “tourist” along with every Canadian athlete who doesn’t do their best at a major event.

But I also tell her that going to the Commonwealth Games was one of the great experiences of my lifetime. I tell her about embarking upon this great adventure with my buddies; about meeting other athletes from around the world; about being pulled into pubs by friendly locals just because I was wearing a Canada tracksuit; and about the unforgettable thrill of parading into Meadowbank Stadium during the Opening Ceremonies to the deafening roar of 20,000 people. She smiles and tells me it sounds like I had fun.

“I got beat a lot more than I won,” I tell her truthfully. “But I always had fun.”

The next day at Charlotte’s Défi, everything goes well until she steps onto her nemesis, the beam. She misses most of her tricks and though she smiles stoically to mark routine’s end, I see her chin tremble. My heart sinks.

But as she sits down with her little teammates, they rally around her chatting and giggling like nothing bad has happened. And nothing bad has happened, just a couple of missteps here and there on a glorious day of cartwheels and back handsprings. Within minutes, she is back to her goofy self, tickling a teammate and dancing badly to the music being piped in overhead. I hope the song lasts forever.

Neale McDevitt is the Editor of the McGill Reporter.