Despite boycott of 1980 Games, Anne Merklinger still rues missed shot as 'Olympian'
Canadian swimmer draws parallels to postponement of Tokyo 2020
Forty years later, the disappointment still haunts Anne Merklinger.
With Canadian athletes trying to untangle the different scenarios created by the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games due to the coronavirus pandemic, Merklinger still laments her missed opportunity to be selected to Canada's 1980 team.
"That's probably the biggest regret I have in my life," said Merklinger, now chief executive officer for Own the Podium.
Back in 1980, Merklinger was a 21-year-old attending the University of South Carolina on a full swimming scholarship. Even though the Canadian government had made the decision to join the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics, Swimming Canada still held a qualifying meet to select an Olympic team.
Competing in the 200-metre breaststroke, Merklinger needed to finish in the top two to make the team. She touched the wall third.
"I was very close to making the team, but I didn't make it," Merklinger said. "And that was the end of my Olympic dream.
"Those athletes that made the team, they were Olympians — and once you're an Olympian, you're always an Olympian."
Merklinger can't guarantee her result would have been different had she gone to the meet knowing a ticket to Moscow was on the line. But she does know her preparation would have changed.
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Training in the U.S., with a few other Canadians, she felt isolated and out of contact.
"Once we heard that Canada wasn't sending a team to Moscow, we kind of took our foot off the gas pedal a little bit, at least I did," she said.
"And I didn't have the kind of support and resources available that we have today for Canada's athletes. And coaches to say 'stick to your training program, it'll be important for you 40 years later to be able to say that you were an Olympian.'"
'It's gut wrenching'
Earlier this week, the International Olympic Committee and Japanese organizers announced the Tokyo Olympics will begin on July 23, 2021, followed by the Paralympics on Aug. 24.
The delay could force some athletes to rethink their Olympic participation, due to age, family commitments or money concerns. The battle against COVID-19 has postponed Olympic qualifying events and closed training facilities.
"What athletes are going through right now as a result of this crisis, it's gut wrenching," said Merklinger. "Some athletes are going to have to revisit and re-evaluate. Do they want to do this for another year because the commitment is phenomenal?
"That is a very personal and difficult decision for every athlete that's been impacted by Tokyo."
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The difference between now and when Merklinger competed is the resources available to help athletes make informed decisions. They can seek financial guidance, mental health advice and services to help them transform into the working world.
"They have an army of people to reach out and ask their questions and get their feedback and get their guidance and to share their struggles," said Merklinger.
Looking back, Merklinger wishes someone would have encouraged her to work harder toward achieving her Olympic dream.
"I know what an Olympic ring looks like on a swimmer's hand," she said. "You're an Olympian and a Paralympian forever. No one ever takes that away from you."