Fencing medal shows MacKay's new attitude

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:02 AM ET

In the days and weeks that followed the most troubling moment of her fencing career, Sherraine MacKay found solace in the written word.

And, perhaps most important of all, some needed perspective.

The Athens Olympics still isn't exactly a favourite memory for the University of Ottawa graduate. She was bitterly disappointed by a shocking first-round loss to an unheralded Greek opponent in the women's epee event.

Though she and her teammates made a major statement with a fourth-place finish in the team competition, MacKay blamed herself afterward for a semi-final loss that prevented Canada from securing a guaranteed medal.

But it wasn't until a month or so later, as she penned the thoughts about the Athens Games that form the concluding chapter of her first book Running With Swords, that Mac-Kay was able to see the experience for what it truly was.

"(Writing about Athens) was completely therapeutic, because you realize you can always find something funny in what's going on, even though it might be terribly painful," said MacKay, for whom humour is so wonderfully instinctive. "It's also therapeutic about just to put it in perspective. You write it and then you realize as you're writing the words, yeah, okay, so we lost that match, is that the end of our lives?

"No, obviously not."

That being said, MacKay admitted during a stop in Ottawa last week that she had to be pushed by an editor at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, her book publisher, to go into great detail about Athens. In her original manuscript, she had "just brushed over it ... for some reason, Athens was too fresh to write about. It just turned my stomach to write about what happened against the French team (in the bronze-medal match)."

MacKay agrees now that it was an essential, necessary part of the book. But it is merely one chapter of a story that is still unfolding.

"Half of the reason why I wrote the book (is that) I know people only see Olympians on one day every four years," she said. "So they think if you win, you're a great champion and if you lose, they think you're a big choker. But nobody's life is one day. Everybody has a story and everybody has a journey."

Since Athens, the journey has taken another turn, and for the better. Shortly after the Games, Mac-Kay and her husband Geordie -- a musician who's become a fencing fanatic and his wife's biggest cheerleader -- left Paris, their home for three years, and relocated to Budapest. There, she is coached by a "fencing genius" -- a Hungarian legend named Gyozo Kulcsar.

Gone, MacKay said, is the intense, often stressful regimen she lived with under her former coach, Daniel Levavasseur, in Paris. While Kulcsar pushes her to be better every day, MacKay said he does it with "a carefree spirit and genuine enjoyment for fencing."

"He truly understands the whole give and take of the game and gets that across to me."

In other words, another dose of much-needed perspective.

"It's just so much less pressure and stress than it has been," said MacKay, a native of tiny Brooks, Alta. "I look back at how I reacted (after losses) and I just can't believe that people didn't grab me and shake me and say 'What the heck, it's only fencing.'

"I can't believe that I took it that seriously, that it consumed my life, that I was so stressed out about something that's really only poking a person with a sword. That's really all it is. It's a pleasure and, for the first time in my life, I really realize that."

MacKay is convinced it is the prime reason she was able to achieve another historic first three weeks ago. At the world championships in Leipzig, Germany, she won the bronze medal in women's epee -- the first medal of any colour won by a Canadian at the event.

"Geordie said it best," MacKay said. "He said 'I've never seen you fence so relaxed.' ... Not being stressed out about it gives me extra time to think about what's going on.

"In Athens, I was hoping I wouldn't lose. Now, when I fence, I'm thinking 'What do I have to do to win this match?' It's really different, it's a good change."

The result has MacKay feeling she's "closer than I've ever been" to being the best in the world. And so the journey continues, all the way to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

She will continue to fence and, MacKay adds, she'll continue to write. But the self-examination in print is likely over.

"I don't think I'm going to write another book about myself," said MacKay, who is trying her hand at a novel instead. "Let's just say that if you ever want to not become self-obsessed, just write a book about yourself. It makes you realize there's only so much you can say.

"So there definitely won't be a sequel (to Running With Swords)."

She'll also chase the ultimate glory in Beijing, but now with a healthy balance between the 30-year-old woman who savours every moment of life and the sport she loves, and the competitor who's striving to be the best on the piste.

Said MacKay: "I'm not really worried about Beijing, in terms of not being able to perform. But to be honest with you, if I don't, I've still had a really great career and I'm not going to regret anything that I did. Either way, it'll be okay.

"It would just be nicer to be okay with a gold medal around my neck."

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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