Olympics Summer

A study in courage

With the Beijing Games around the corner, Kyle Shewfelt needs to focus on physical and mental preparations. But that has been difficult.

Gymnast Kyle Shewfelt broke both legs but is going for gold in Beijing

Olympic gold medallist Kyle Shewfelt has been dealing with upheaval in his personal life and is also coming back from a gruesome injury. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

Kyle Shewfelt's frustration is palpable. "There are gaps between the planks in my hardwood floor," he says from his new home in Calgary. "Some of them will have to be pulled up."

Shewfelt took possession of the house in early April, and arranged for the floor to be done before he moved in a month later — but that didn't happen. The gymnast is quick to point out that flooring isn't important in the larger scheme of things. Still, it's a distraction he could do without.

"It's important to feel settled and balanced in life," he says, "and that has been tough for me to do."  With the Beijing Games two months away, Shewfelt needs to focus on physical and mental preparations, but that has been difficult.

He has been dealing with upheaval in his personal life. Also, as a reigning Olympic champion coming back from a gruesome injury, a lot of people want a little of his time.

A powerful motivator
Agenda Sport Marketing, the agency that manages Shewfelt's media bookings, corporate appearances and community engagements, receives about a dozen requests for the athlete's time every week.
Shewfelt has been a big supporter of organizations like the Special Olympics and Right to Play. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

He shows up to help sponsors such as Bell Canada and other organizations, including the Special Olympics and Right to Play, an athlete-based humanitarian organization. Shewfelt recently travelled to Canmore, Alta., to play in a golf tournament organized by Right to Play.

The congenial, 26-year-old athlete also enjoys talking to young people. "If a sponsor wanted to send Kyle to schools only, he would go to every one," says Russell Reimer, a partner at Agenda Sports Marketing. "Kyle is powerful motivator. He is very seasoned for his age. He has a great delivery and great presence."

Media outlets vie for his attention. Shewfelt has received so many interview requests, Reimer has had to regulate his accessibility. The athlete answers print reporters' questions in one-to-two hour blocks of time twice a week, and he spends two hours every Thursday with broadcast reporters and camera operators.

"He doesn't like to say no to things," says Reimer. "So we help him manage his schedule so that he can spend time in gym. We help him prioritize and stay focused on his comeback."

'I heard a cracking sound'
Shewfelt's comeback is the biggest Canadian story of the Games.
Shewfelt suffered two broken legs and ligament damage during a training mishap before the world championships in Germany last summer. ((Kim D. Johnson/Associated Press))

In a training mishap before the world championships in Germany last summer, Shewfelt suffered two broken legs and ligament damage.

"I heard a cracking sound," he recalls. "I lay there for a moment then tried to straighten my legs. It took me ten minutes to do that. I finally made it out of the gym, but I was moving like Bambi. I didn't realize how badly I was injured until a few days later, after the MRI. They came in with a wheelchair and I thought, 'That's a bad sign.'"

Shewfelt underwent surgery in Alberta. A surgeon inserted a plate and screws and re-attached ligaments in the athlete's left knee, then re-positioned the bone and inserted a screw in the right knee.

Afterward, Shewfelt couldn't prepare a meal or bathe without help. Every morning for a month, he had to roll to the side of his bed and manoeuvre himself onto a walker before inching toward the washroom.

"It was an eye-opening experience," he says. "Life was like that for just one month, but it gave me an idea of what it might be like to live as a disabled person. I couldn't use some restrooms because they didn't have adequate wheelchair access."

Nine months later, Shewfelt is still in pain but says "time is taking the edge off." He's now training six days a week and hopes to return to top form in time for the men's gymnastics competition in Beijing, where he is expected to defend his title in the floor exercise.

"I want to feel good before then but not great because you can't maintain a peak," he says. "I want to feel that I'm gaining momentum heading into the Games, going from 95 to 100 per cent.  Beijing is always in the back of my mind. It always factors into my thinking. For example, I want to finish dealing with this hardwood floor problem so I can get into my comfort zone to prepare for the Games."

Retreating into a 'bubble'
Home renovations are not his only distraction. He's also dealing with the end of an important relationship. "Melissa and I parted ways," he says of his former girlfriend, whom he credits with helping him get through difficult times following the accident.  And then, a minor headache.
As the undisputed star of Canada's gymnastics team, Shewfelt, would have been considered the man to beat in Beijing had he not suffered a serious injury. ((Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press))

"The engine light in my car went on," he says. "When I went out with my friends last week they told me the gas cap might be loose. But I tightened it and the light is still on. I have an appointment at the dealership on Friday." Then Shewfelt adds, almost apologetically: "I know this happens to everyone."

True, but not everyone is an elite athlete preparing to compete in the biggest sporting event in the world.

Canada is sending a full men's gymnastics team — six athletes — to Beijing. Shewfelt is leading the charge. He would have been considered the man to beat if he had not been injured. As it stands, he is considered a long shot to win another gold. 

But Shewfelt isn't bitter.

"Life never works out the way you think it will," he says. "But you just have to deal with it."