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Elaine Tanner, 1960s swimming superstar, cherishes rare medal that Canada wanted back

In 1970, Tanner became the youngest Canadian to be awarded the Medal of Service
Olympic medalist in swimming and former world record holder Elaine Tanner nicknamed “Mighty Mouse”, was awarded the Service Medal in 1969. The government renamed the medal to the Order of Canada medal in 1972. She’s photographed in Saanich, B.C., on Tuesday, January 31, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

She was once hailed as Canada’s best athlete and Elaine Tanner has the accolades to prove it as a teenage swimming prodigy known as “Mighty Mouse” at Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan American games.

But her most cherished medal came outside the pool. It’s a sterling silver Medal of Service, the forerunner to the current Officer of the Order of Canada medal.

When the Canadian government wanted it back, to switch for the replacement honour, Tanner, now 71, refused. She says she can’t let it let go because it tells the story of her life.

Tanner went to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics overwhelmingly favoured to win gold. Instead, with the weight of a nation on her 17-year-old shoulders, she came home with two silvers, in the 100 m and 200 m backstroke, and a bronze in the 4x100 m freestyle relay.

Tanner was devastated. At 18 she retired from competition. She suffered for years with panic attacks, eating disorders and depression.

Now, almost 55 years since Mexico, Tanner says from her North Saanich home that she has turned losing gold into her greatest victory.

She says she hopes the way she emerged from the “black hole” that her life became after the Olympics can inspire other people facing hard times.

The service medal symbolizes that. She picked up the medal from a table covered with photos of her athletic achievements and explained the honour’s significance in her search for life’s gold.

“I thought my big quest in life was to win gold at the Olympic Games, but I realized that’s not the gold that hangs around your neck,” said Tanner.

“It’s the gold you mine within yourself. That’s my message.”

In 1970, Tanner became the youngest Canadian to be awarded the Medal of Service, created to recognize exemplary achievement and service to the nation.

The medal was introduced in 1967 and was awarded to 294 people before concerns about its modest appearance prompted a restructuring by the government in 1972, including the request to voluntarily return the award.

It meant too much to Tanner.

“My heart told me that this is the medal that was given to me by the government, actually by (former) governor general Roland Michener, and he pinned it on my dress, and I went, ‘This means the world to me,’ and I don’t want to hand it in,” said Tanner.

“I like it just the way it is,” she said from her living room overlooking a marina. “I’m so glad I kept it.”

Tanner had gone to Mexico City as a sporting and cultural phenomenon.

She got the “Mighty Mouse” nickname in 1965 after winning her first Canadian national swim title in the 100 m butterfly at aged 14.

“I must have been four-foot-nine and probably just under 90 pounds soaking wet,” said Tanner. “I was really small. I got up on the podium to receive my medal and the other girls were towering over me and a coach from Ocean Falls, the swim coach, yelled, ‘Way to go Mighty Mouse.’

“The crowd laughed, and the media picked it up and it just stuck.”

More national titles, world records, and gold medals at Commonwealth and Pan American games followed.

She was an unbackable favourite to win gold in Mexico City.

Instead, she placed second.

She may have been the first Canadian woman to win any Olympic swimming medal, but the headlines were “Tanner loses gold,” she said.

Tanner said she returned from the Mexico City an emotional and psychological wreck.

“Not only did I want to win for myself and my family, I had to win for Canada,” she said. “It was a heavy burden … In my own little mind, I let everybody down.”

Crawling out of the “black hole” took years. “I struggled for so long,” said Tanner. “I really did.”

She is now a mental health advocate and children’s book author and hopes she can help others.

“We all go through challenges in life,” she said. “We will meet defeat but keep going. The key of life is to keep going.”

Tanner wrote an open letter in 2017 to Olympic champion swimmer Penny Oleksiak, who won medals for Canada at 16 years old, advising to her to trust herself and listen to her inner voice.

Tanner and Olympic ski champion Nancy Greene Raine are likely among the few living Canadians who still have a Medal of Service, said Christopher McCreery, who has written a dozen books on Canadian orders, decorations and medals.

Of the original 294 medals, 104 were returned in the early years, McCreery said. About 30 people kept their medals but most have died, he added.

“It’s a super rare, scarce medal and it’s a very unusual story because she was so young when she got it and obviously retained a great attachment to it,” he said in an interview from Halifax. “It’s not just the medal, it’s the story behind it.”

Tanner said that despite breaking five world records, winning gold at Commonwealth and Pan Am games, and winning the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top athlete at the age of 15, she considers the Medal of Service the prize that best honours her journey.

“It’s a symbol of all my accomplishments wrapped up in one, from the country I did it for,” she said.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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