July 22, 2012
Elizabeth Manley's journey through darkness
By TIM BAINES, QMI Agency
OTTAWA - Elizabeth Manley has been to her own personal hell and back.
Put aside the image you get of the 1988 Olympic silver medallist — the perky little blond with the sparkling blue eyes and toothy smile, clutching red roses and chomping down on her medal in Calgary.
Since then she has had a park and an arena in Ottawa named after her, but Manley’s road has been filled with speed bumps.
She has felt unwanted, unable to cope with the world, locking herself in an attic.
She once lost all her hair. She put on too much weight. And she fought tooth and nail with depression, at times feeling battered and bruised by a disorder that has delivered too many knockout punches.
“People didn’t want to think of Canada’s sweetheart having a mental illness,” Manley said. “They want to know me as that perfect blond. They think I’ve got the world in my hands. I don’t. I have my bad days, too.”
Now 46, she has learned not to dwell on the negative, choosing instead to push her powerful message on others in a world where kids can be emotionally scarred by nasty words on Facebook or Twitter.
Manley learned how to skate before she was three.
Her mother, Joan, found a way to motivate her in a hockey family which included older brothers Greg, Tim and Tom.
“(My mother) would stand on one side of the boards, shaking a box of Smarties,” Manley said. “I would go flying across the ice for the Smarties.
“By the time I got my gloves off, mittens with the string on them, I would eat the Smarties, and she would already be at other side, shaking the box again. So I was going back and forth for Smarties. I learned how to skate from chocolate.”
An air force brat, she moved from the Trenton, Ont., base to Ottawa when she was nine. Her parents got divorced. She started skating with the Gloucester Skating Club. Coached by Bob McEvoy, she would reach nationals within five years.
At age 16, she said she had a dream of going to the Olympics.
“Then, suddenly, a year and a half before Sarajevo (host of the 1984 Winter Games), Bob McEvoy dropped me as a student. He said he couldn’t coach me anymore. It crushed me. I felt like my dreams had been ripped from my hands.
“I found out later in life he had been diagnosed with AIDS. He didn’t want me to see him go through that. He was going with the tough love, pushing me away.”
It was devastating for Manley. Her world was crashing around her.
“I was sent by Skate Canada to train in Lake Placid,” she said. “From the moment I arrived, I completely locked myself out from the world.
“I was living in the attic of a house by myself. I had just lost my coach who had been pretty much like a father figure to me. I’d been taken away from my mom. And I had a coach who was Austrian and barely spoke English. I had no connection with anybody.
“Within five months of being in Lake Placid, I lost all my hair. I physically had a nervous breakdown. I was diagnosed with depression. The stigma was outrageous. People didn’t want to talk to me. People didn’t want to understand. They didn’t want to hear the words mental illness. I quit skating and pretty much shut myself off from the world. I moved back (to Ottawa). That was going to be it. I was going to try to get myself healthy, go back to school and be a normal teen.
“The thought of killing myself never entered my mind. But I had given up.
“Calgary’s Peter and Sonya Dunfield showed up in Ottawa and asked to meet me. I was 35 pounds overweight, I was bald and I wasn’t skating anymore. I didn’t know why they wanted to talk to me.
“I remember walking in and saying to them: ‘Hello, I’m Elizabeth Manley, I’m fat and bald, what could you want with me?’
“They burst out laughing, and said they knew they were going to love me as soon as they met me. They wanted to see if they could change my mind about who I was and my love for the sport. Six months later, I was in a Canadian Olympic uniform (as an 18-year-old) in Sarajevo.
Despite her depression, Manley never sought alcohol or drugs for sanctuary.
“For me, it was food, greasy food,” she said. “It was an addiction. Every time something upset me, I would hang my skates in the closet and would sit in my pyjamas all day and eat everything in the fridge. Give me the biggest, juiciest hamburger.
“Drugs scared the crap out of me because we were drug-tested so much; I didn’t even use Tylenol.”
Manley’s mother meant everything to her. Her death in 2008 was crushing.
“My mom and I were so close,” Manley said. “She was my best friend and my right arm. She didn’t know if I was doing doubles or triples, but she was the best skating mom ever.
“One of the biggest things that bothered me for many years was my mom didn’t talk at the end. It broke my heart. I struggled for months, wondering why she didn’t say goodbye to me. My husband (Brent Theobald) came out with a great line: ‘You guys were so close, nothing needed to be said.’ The words had been said for all those years.”
Losing her mother was tough — emotionally and physically. Manley’s blood pressure rocketed. She gained 30 pounds. Again, she had shut herself down and, again, she battled back.
She tried the Herbal Magic program and the weight went away. Her blood pressure went down. Once again, she was back on track.
Manley married Theobald, a former Ontario Hockey League player, in 2006.
“He has been my strength,” she said. “He’s the calm in my storm.”
Then she laughs that Manley laugh, her eyes lighting up: “He’ll say I’m the storm in his calm.”
Manley puts on a happy face.
But she still fights the fight, the battle that too many face each day.
“I’m still on a roller-coaster,” said Manley. “I tell people it’s OK to have bad days. Don’t be afraid, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. Depression was the best thing that could have happened to me. It taught me who I was. I didn’t get lost in a world of sport. I found myself through the whole experience.
“I was bald, I was 35 pounds overweight, I was locked in a house because I didn’t want people to see me. I’ve had a nervous breakdown. I was 16 and I thought there was nothing good in life for me. Four and a half years later, I was standing on the podium and having my greatest moment. When you think your life is no good, you can change it.”
OLYMPIC DREAM ALMOST WASN'T
Feb. 27, 1988 is a night Elizabeth Manley will never forget.
MANLEY BACK ON SKATES AGAIN
Elizabeth Manley is getting back on skates. With a purpose.
The Olympic silver medallist is putting on a figure skating show, Elizabeth Manley and Friends, Jan. 26 at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa.
The idea is to raise money for teen mental health, specifically the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. It’s in memory of Darin Richardson and Jamie Hubley, teens who committed suicide.
It has been a long haul for Manley, who has put so much of her energy into everything except skating.
“I was skating pretty good and pretty hard up until 2005-06, then my mom was diagnosed with cancer,” she said. “I stopped my life. I never left my mom’s bedside for that entire year. I lost her. Then my dad took a turn for the worse. He had Alzheimer’s and I lost him a year ago October.
“It took a toll. I was asked to do a show last December, in Atlantic City. It was Legends of Women. I skated, but I was nowhere near where I wanted to be.
“After being off for almost five years, my ankles had deteriorated. When I was trying to jump for the show, I had zero ankle strength. I couldn’t believe I was 46 years old and back in physio.
“I turn 47 in August. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not easy. I’m not 20 anymore. I’m a perfectionist. My name is on that marquee. I want people to say, ‘She’s back and she looks great.’
“I’m not expecting to go out and do triples. But I want to be fit and feel confident. When I feel good about myself, I can do anything.”