Canadian Olympic kayakers buoyed by spirit of late father
By CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency
Emilie Fournel and her brother, Hugues, are both competing in the London Games. They're inspired by their favourite, a 1976 Olympian who died while his children were young. (Reuters)
Emilie Fournel, like a lot of teenagers so inclined, ignored the warning.
She was visiting her grandmother’s house and the lure of a basement filled with stacks of mysterious boxes and potential discoveries associated with the Fournel clan was too much to resist.
“My grandma’s basement, there’s treasures in there. My brother and I were going in the basement. My grandma was like, ‘it’s full of dust down there. Don’t go there,” remembered the Montreal kayaker, her younger brother, Hugues, still tagging along.
Emilie, who will compete in the K1 in London, figures she was 15 or 16 at the time, embarking on a paddling career that would lead her here to her second Olympic Games, when they ventured down into the musty basement.
Treasures, was the way Emilie put it.
“It was like jewellery, better than money,” Hugues said.
What they found among those dusty boxes was a connection to their late father, Jean, a window opening in the dark. He was a paddler himself, competing in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal (their mom, Guylaine, was a paddler, too, competing in the Pan-Am Games).
Jean became a firefighter and died young, too young for a man with two young children, at age 40 from leukaemia.
Emilie was 11, Hugues, two years younger.
“We looking at weird things and we found this box and in the box it was old stuff my dad had,” Emilie said. “There was this journal. It was like in a movie. A cardboard box in the bottom of my grandma’s basement.”
It was Jean’s racing journal, in which he recorded the details of his journey.
“I read a couple of pages. It’s really emotional. It’s the best way to have advice from our father. (He) never saw us growing up, being the athletes and the people we are now,” said Hugues, who will compete in the men’s K2 with Ryan Cochrane (not swimming’s silver medallist) of Windsor, N.S.
“He woke up in the morning and wrote every single thing: When he went to sleep, his pulse, everything he ate, almost the amount of steps he took during the day. It’s pretty impressive, actually. You can see he was a pretty organized athlete.”
In those pages, Emilie got a glimpse into the her father’s life and was blessed with a connection.
“It’s the closest to advice I could get from my dad. He never got the chance to see me become the woman I am now or the Olympic athlete that I became. I never got the chance to have his advice. Some people might say it’s annoying to get advice from your dad, but when you can’t get it, that’s when you want it.
“It’s the closest I’ll ever get to having his advice.”
In those pages, Emilie could see some of her father’s personality, his detailed notes opening up a door into how he felt, how he thought.
“His emotions are in there like, ‘oh, this sucks,’ and I was like, ‘oh, he reacts like that, too. It’s normal and he made it to the Olympics, too.’ Some days it’s hard. It was hard for him, too, and succeeded anyway. The next day he said, ‘let’s go. I’m ready for practice,” Emilie said.
She has the journal.
Hugues said he doesn’t trust himself to keep it.
“My sister kept it because I lose everything. It’s too precious for me to lose,” he said.
He has his own items to remind him of his dad, a jacket he wore in the opening ceremony and a T-shirt he wore in the 1976 Games. Hugues has worn it in competition before, but hasn’t decided whether he will wear it here when he takes to the water Monday morning.
“I’m not superstitious,” he said. “It’s not a thing I need to have. I know it’s with me, I know it’s in my bag, I know it’s at home. I know it’s in my possession. That’s what gives me the strength.”
The T-shirt and the jacket are tangible. Less so are Hugues’s memories of his dad. Because he was young when his father died, he’s left with what he called more flashbacks than memories.
“More like particular moments. Memories of him bringing me to a hockey game and me falling asleep at the hockey game, waking up. Stuff like that,” said Hugues. “Me and him walking to the arena — again it’s hockey — he would carry my (hockey bag) and I would carry my stick. He taught me how to shoot a puck. He was a good hockey player.”
Hugues tried all kinds of sports as a kid before focusing on kayak.
“Seeing my sister qualify (for the Beijing Games) in 2008 in Montreal on the basin my father raced at Olympics, that’s when I said, ‘alright, I’m a paddler. I think I have the talent for it.’ It took four years, but here we are talking about it.
“I’m more than happy to be here, but right now my focus is not exactly on the ‘wow’ of the Olympics, it’s really on performance.”
It’s also on sharing this with Emilie.
“When it’s hard,” Hugues said, “I can turn around and my sister is going to be there.”
They’ll be thinking of their father.
“Every bad thing in life has a positive thing,” Hugues said. “You just have to find it.”