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Debbie Brill: Taking a bad day in stride

The Story

After working so hard to prepare for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Debbie Brill has failed spectacularly. The medal hopeful couldn't clear a height she should have made in her sleep. But what's really shocked and even offended some Canadians is that, in an extraordinary interview right after the jump, an unemotional Brill laughed at her "absurd" performance. After playing the interview, Peter Gzowski says in this CBC Radio clip that criticizing Brill for her tearless reaction is unfair. Brill, Gzowski says, is something rare and special in athletics. She jumps because she loves it but she knows that sport is only one small part of a rich, full life. Gzowski says he knows people are upset about Canada's medal shortage. But he'd rather have a dozen Debbie Brills than one potbellied detractor.

Medium: Radio
Program: Olympic Magazine
Broadcast Date: July 26, 1976
Guest(s): Debbie Brill
Host: Peter Gzowski
Reporter: Bob Willson
Duration: 8:18

Did You know?

• Peter Gzowski was right in predicting a backlash against Brill for her lack of Olympic tears. Sportswriters questioned her commitment. On CBC Radio, commentator Bob Picken called Brill's reaction an unworthy moment. "Perhaps, even if you have to fake it, you should have shed a few tears," Picken told fellow broadcaster Harry Brown. "You can't perform at your peak if this is your attitude -- you must be fired up."

• While Brill seemed outwardly calm and analytical about her Olympic meltdown, she wrote in her 1986 autobiography Jump that, inside, she felt wounded. "I had learned to discipline myself, to focus hard on what I wanted to achieve, and I knew that I would get over the temporary difficulty of forgetting how to jump," she wrote. "But this knowledge didn't dull the first bite of pain."

• Debbie Brill was born March 10, 1953, in Mission, B.C. She started walking before she was eight months old. Brill went to an elementary school in Aldergrove, Alta., where students were encouraged to try individual sports, such as track and field, because there weren't enough children for team sports. Her talent was spotted early. She was asked to join a club at age 12.

• Brill stormed into the limelight in 1969, winning a gold medal at her first international meet. A year later, at age 17, she became the first North American woman to clear 1.83 metres (six feet). Also in 1970, the long-limbed teen triumphed at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. She grinned when Queen Elizabeth II, trying to put the gold medal around Brill's neck, got the strap caught in her dark curly mane.

• At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Brill finished a respectable eighth but then immediately quit jumping. Back in Canada, she gave away her track shoes and everything else that reminded her of track and field. Brill hitchhiked in Canada and the United States and, she later revealed, experimented with perception-altering drugs including mescaline and LSD.

• The massacre in Munich of 11 Israelis by Palestinian militants -- along with the International Olympic Committee's decision to carry on with the Games -- sickened her, Brill has said. Her decision to drop out also stemmed from a feeling that trying to live up to the media's expectations and ideal of a young superstar had warped her sensibilities. "I felt there was a public me and a private me and they just didn't match," she said in 1986.

• After two years away from the limelight, Brill returned to competition saying she was no longer bothered by public and media expectations and would do her own thing. She quickly rose to number four in the world before the 1976 Games. In Montreal, however, she "no-heighted" --missing all three jumps at the opening height, in this case 1.73 metres -- and was eliminated. The winner, Rosemarie Witschas-Ackermann of East Germany, jumped 1.93 metres.

• Brill bounced back from the Montreal Olympics with many triumphs including the World Cup championship in 1979 and in 1982 she set a world indoor record of 1.99 metres only four-and-a-half months after giving birth to her first child.  Her decision to take a break from competition to have the baby, and to not marry her live-in boyfriend, which she announced at a press conference, confounded critics as much as her triumphant comeback.

• Unlike some athletes, Brill fully supported the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games to punish the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan. She competed in Los Angeles in 1984. Nursing a sprained ankle, she finished fifth. Brill qualified for the 1988 Seoul Games but, bothered by recurring injuries, decided to retire. She became a university student, track coach and stay-at-home mom before returning to the high jump in over-30 "Masters" competitions, where she has set several world records.


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