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Emilie Heymans, Jennifer Abel Deliver On Diving With Canada's First Medal Of The Olympics

07/29/2012 10:51 EDT | Updated 09/28/2012 05:12 EDT
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LONDON - Her career was forged over more than two decades of training, of six-hour sessions, of 80 dives a day, five days a week.

If Emilie Heymans decides to retire after the London Olympics, she's going out in fitting fashion.

The St. Lambert, Que., diver captured Canada's first medal of the Games with partner Jennifer Abel on Sunday, launching herself into the history books in the process.

The Canadians won bronze in the three-metre synchronized event, a result that makes Heymans the first female diver and first Canadian summer Olympian to reach the podium in four consecutive Olympic Games.

"I couldn't have ever imagined diving in four Games, or being in this position at 30," Heymans said.

Heymans won silver in the 10-metre synchro in 2000, bronze in the same event in Athens in 2004, and a silver in the 10-metre individual event four years ago in Beijing.

Heymans and Abel had silver in their sights Sunday, sitting in second place behind Chinese world champions Minxia Wu and He Zi after the first dive. But they were jostled by television cameras when they were practising on the pool deck before their second dive — a moment that Heymans said burst their bubble of focus.

They were noticeably out of sync on the board in Dive 2 — a forward dive in pike position, normally an easy feat for the duo — and fell to fifth place.

"I think both of us, in our head it was like: what's going on, what's going on?" Heymans said. "But after we were able to calm down and come back to the competition and we know it's never over until the last dive."

Heymans and Abel, a 20-year-old from Laval, Que., battled back to win bronze with 316.80 points. World champions Minxia Wu and He Zi of China led from start to finish to take the gold with an overall score of 346.20. Americans Kelci Bryant and Abigail Johnston captured silver with 321.90.

The medal on the second full day of competition is good news for a Canadian team aiming for a top-12 finish overall, and takes some pressure off the rest of the squad, said Mark Tewksbury, Canada's chef de mission.

"Do you see me? I'm electrified. I'm a little shaky," said a teary-eyed Tewksbury.

"It's a different narrative. Traditionally the past couple of Games, in the summer, it's been the second weekend or Day 6. That's a long time sometimes and it just changes the whole course of things from here on in."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper congratulated the duo in a statement.

"Across the country we watched as you competed, and our hearts filled with pride as you won a place on the Olympic podium, the first one for Canada in these Games," Harper said.

Canada went seven days without a medal in Beijing before the men's rowing pair and wrestler Carol Huynh ended the drought on Day 8 with silver and gold respectively. Wrestler Tonya Verbeek also added a bronze that day.

In 2004, Heymans and partner Blythe Hartley's bronze was the lone medal in the opening seven days.

Heymans, who is also competing in the individual three-metre springboard event in London, will decide her future following the Games.

She said she might dive one more year. It won't be an easy decision for a woman who has trained at least 20 hours a week since she was seven.

"Actually sport is my entire life, it's what I've been doing since I was six years old. I think I'm going to carry this baggage for the rest of my life," she said, meaning it in a good way.

A child of sporting parents — dad Eric played soccer in Belgium, and mom Marie-Paule Van Eyck, competed in Montreal's 1976 Olympics as a member of the Belgian fencing team — the blond diver was originally a gymnast who was told by coaches she was too tall for that sport.

Her parents encouraged her to try diving.

"At first I didn't want to try, I didn't even want to go to the pool because I loved gymnastics so I didn't want to quit and I hate being wet, I hate being in the water, and I'm always cold," she said.

But the diver, who distracts herself between dives by watching movies, grew to love the sport and has won medals in all of the major multi-sport Games since she splashed onto the international diving scene in 1999.

Her parents were in the crowd at the Aquatic Centre at Olympic Park watching their daughter make history, and were all smiles as Heymans and Abel climbed onto the medal podium in their red Team Canada tracksuits.

But it's been a roller-coaster career for Heymans.

After a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2005 world championships in Montreal, her then-coach Michel Larouche was critical, creating a rift in their relationship. It was a time the diver has called the most difficult in her career and led to her decision to leave Larouche and join another club under the tutelage of coach Yihua Li.

"She had lots of highs and lows in her career," said Sylvie Bernier, a diving gold medallist at the '84 Games and Canada's assistant chef de mission in London. "It's not always been easy for her, but she always came back and she was always up there."

Heymans won her silver in Beijing on the 10-metre platform, but smacking the water from that height eventually takes a brutal toll on the body, and she switched her focus solely to springboard.

It was a bold move that paid off as she and Abel claimed silver at the 2011 world championships.

"For these Games, she decided to become a springboard diver. That, in itself, is incredible," Bernier said.

"Emilie is a very special diver. She's got, first of all of course, the talent. She's an amazing diver. She's very strong. Mostly what I believe she has is this very silent confidence she has, that she doesn't need to tell the whole world she is going to be on that podium. She just knows it."

Mere minutes before climbing the board for the first dive, Heymans encouraged fans via Twitter to watch the event ". . .pour la premiere medaille du Canada??? Houuuu!!!"

Canadian diving coach Cesar Henderson, a native of the Dominican Republic, tossed a baseball from hand to hand during the event. It helped with the stress, he said.

He needn't have worried, as Heymans and Abel scored high on a lovely reverse two-and-a-half somersault on their fourth dive to put themselves back into podium position.

"It's marvellous," the coach said. "I think (Heymans) deserves it, she's been working hard her whole life, she's a great athlete and a beautiful person."

If and when Heymans retires, she has a degree in fashion marketing, and is working on developing her own line of swimwear. The four planned styles will be a nod to her diving career — she wants to call them Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London.

London, meanwhile, marked the first time Abel has reached the Olympic podium. A few moments after receiving her medal, she said it hadn't quite sunk in yet.

"I'm really happy right now. . . I don't feel it, but I know that I am," said Abel. "Because the begining of the year we were really nervous for that moment, I think it takes time to just calm down and just realize it."

Canadian athletes were quick to offer up their congrats to Heymans and Abel via social media.

"Big congrats to @jennabel91 & @eheymans, first medal for Canada, and Em's career 4th!! #GoCanada," tweeted star kayaker Adam van Koeverden.

Fellow diver Meaghan Benfeito was thrilled for her teammates.

"Hell yeah baby!!!!! They did itttttttt @JennAbel91 @eheymans !!!!!!!!! First canadian medallllll !!!!!!!"

Keeping the Chinese divers off the top of the podium, meanwhile, would have been a massive challenge. The two won gold in the synchro at last year's world championships, Wu won the individual three-metre goal and Zi took the silver.

They lead a formidable Chinese squad that is hoping to go one better than Beijing and win eight out of eight gold medals.

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