Karen Cockburn: Trampoline gave me the ultimate reward

Karen Cockburn: Trampoline gave me the ultimate reward


‘It is hard to believe that my role as an elite athlete has come to a close,’ says 3-time Olympic medallist

By Karen Cockburn for CBC Sports
July 16, 2017
 

For as long as I can remember I have been wearing red and white of the Maple Leaf with pride.

I made the national trampoline gymnastics team when I was 13 years old, and that is when I began travelling the world, competing for Canada. It has been a great honour to represent my country for the past 25 years. It is hard to believe that my role as an elite athlete has come to a close.

Dave Ross, left, has been Karen Cockburn's coach and mentor for a quarter century. (Amy Sancetta/The Assoicated Press) Dave Ross, left, has been Karen Cockburn's coach and mentor for a quarter century. (Amy Sancetta/The Assoicated Press)

Trampoline demands your focus 100 per cent of the time. It  dares you to ignore your fears, to soar 20 feet in the air, performing difficult manoeuvres, all while making it look effortless. The sport  pushes you beyond your mental and physical limits, day in and day out. It takes a certain kind of human to embrace this reality.

Facing a challenge has always driven me. When I have a vision, no matter how impossible it seems, I am focused and determined to see it to fruition.   

My Olympic dream began when I was 12 years old. Watching the 1992 Barcelona Games on television,  Silken Laumann and Mark Tewksbury were my childhood heroes. Seeing them achieve greatness, and hearing their stories inspired me to dream of my own Olympic appearance.

At that time I was competing in both gymnastics and diving. I tagged along with one of my diving teammates to Skyriders Trampoline Place for a lesson to help with my diving skills. That is when I found out trampoline was a sport in its own right.

I was immediately hooked. The adrenaline I got from learning a new trick and soaring through the air was like nothing I had ever felt before.

 

This is  when I met my long-time coach and mentor Dave Ross, who coached me for 25 years. His love of the sport, and his enthusiasm for pushing the limits made for a fun training environment. I entered  trampoline at a unique time. Eight years before it would debut as an event at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

 

Trampoline’s Olympic debut

Dave had been dreaming of trampoline’s inclusion in the Olympics since 1976, before I was even born. Trampoline became a huge part of his life. He helped grow the sport in so many ways. He wanted better equipment, so he invented his own trampolines. He created his own club and he had a vision that would eventually make him one of the best coaches in the world.

Our combined dream and love of the sport is what fueled our success. We trained to be the best in the world and our preparation soon met opportunity. I was a teenager when trampoline was accepted as a full-medal sport. I was excited and determined.

Nothing was going to stop me from becoming the first women to represent Canada at the Olympics in trampoline. 

I was 19 years old at my first Olympic Games in Sydney 2000. My parents were in the audience, cheering me on, just as they had done at every competition since I started this journey. They sacrificed a lot to help me pursue my Olympic dream. They supported me every step of the way.

 

My dream of competing in the Olympics was finally realized. I won a bronze medal for Canada. What made it even sweeter was that my boyfriend at the time, and now husband, Mathieu Turgeon also won a bronze medal for trampoline at the Sydney Olympics. It is a memory we cherish together, and it is why our daughter’s middle name is Sydney.

 
 

I continued to participate in trampoline for four Olympic cycles and I saw a huge transformation in the sport. International participation numbers increased, equipment improved and the sport evolved with technical advancements, increased funding and sponsors.

With trampoline’s increasing popularity, the level of competition  continued to rise. I worked hard to stay at the top of the sport, pushing myself to learn more difficult skills and constantly jumping higher. 
I dreamed of winning the world championships, the highest level of competition for my sport before its Olympic inclusion. All of my training finally came together in 2003. I became the world champion — the first Canadian to do so. My coach and I were both crying. It was his dream to coach a world champion.

That is one of my greatest sports memories.

One of Cockburn's proudest moments was being chosen Canada's closing ceremony flag-bearer for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
 (Chiasson/The Canadian Press) One of Cockburn's proudest moments was being chosen Canada's closing ceremony flag-bearer for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Results out of your control

I went on to win a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and another silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. It is hard finishing a close second not once, but twice.

At the 2008 Games, winning gold for Canada was all I could think about. I did everything in my power to stand on the top of the podium, but my score came up short. It is gut-wrenching competing in a judged sport.

Your fate is left up to the judges. No matter how hard you train, or how great your performance was, the result is ultimately out of your control.
In Beijing, I experienced the ultimate reward an athlete can receive: to walk into an Olympic Stadium carrying your nation’s flag.

I was so honoured to be chosen as the flag-bearer for the closing ceremony. I felt so much pride walking into the stadium waving the Canadian flag on behalf of the team and our great nation.

 

My international competitors and friends began retiring but my passion for the sport kept me competing. The Olympic cycle leading to London was my best yet. I was injury free and after years of achieving results we finally had all the support we needed to train to our full potential.

Karen Cockburn wins a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
 

Passing the torch

Rosie MacLennan and I had been teammates for years and we were both at the top of the field leading into the 2012 London Games.

Rosie MacLennan, left, took the mantle from Cockburn and is a two-time Olympic gold medallist. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press) Rosie MacLennan, left, took the mantle from Cockburn and is a two-time Olympic gold medallist. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

We pushed each other every day, and we knew we could both be on the podium. We had the best chance to walk away with a gold medal for Canada.

In London I gave the best performance of my career, but I ended up fourth. Not only did I miss my goal of winning an Olympic Gold medal, I also narrowly missed the podium.

I was devastated but also elated, because my teammate Rosie won gold. Canada had a gold medal in trampoline! It may not have been around my neck but I felt so much pride that Canada got top place.

 

After London, I needed a break and I also wanted to start a family, but I planned to return to competition in time for the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games. I was excited by the opportunity to compete in the city where I was born and raised.

Everyone assumed I had retired because I had a baby. It makes me laugh the way people like to put us in boxes.

Daughter Emilie, left, was able to watch her mom win a medal at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.
 (Courtesy Karen Cockburn) Daughter Emilie, left, was able to watch her mom win a medal at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. (Courtesy Karen Cockburn)

Yes, I am a mom but I am also an elite athlete. My daughter, Emilie, arrived in 2013 and I returned to competition in 2014. There were a lot of challenges that came with the comeback. Being an athlete and a mother was definitely a balancing act, but it was rewarding.

Having my daughter watch me compete at the Pan Am Games and winning a medal for Canada in front of Emilie, all my friends and family was such a special moment. I wanted to show my girl that anything is possible.

I continued to train in 2016 alongside Rosie as she prepared for the Rio Olympics. I supported and helped her as much as I could. It was exciting to see her win another Olympic gold medal for Canada. 

With my daughters arms wrapped around my neck, I was happy watching the sport I love, still in the Olympics, with Canada still on top.

That is gold to me.

(Large photos by Getty Images/The Associated Press/The Canadian Press)

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