Best female Canadian swimmer in the late 1960s
Born: 22 February 1951, Vancouver, British Columbia
Elaine Tanner began swimming at the age of six, eventually specializing in the backstroke, butterfly, and individual medley. In 1966 at the age of 15, she leapt to national attention when she competed at the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica, winning four gold medals, three silver medals, and setting two world records. The following year, she competed at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, winning two golds, three silvers, and setting two more world records. The media loved the girl known as "Mighty Mouse" and declared her the favourite to win gold at the Olympic games in Mexico in 1968.
At the Olympics, Tanner won her first qualifying race in the 100m backstroke, setting a new Olympic record. She won her second qualifying race, again setting a new Olympic record. When it came time for the final, the inexperienced, politically appointed coach of the Canadian team advised Tanner to start slowly. That was not her usual style but the nervous, scared 17 year old did as she was told. She broke the Olympic record yet again but lost to American Kaye Hall.
Years later, while watching a CBC documentary on Olympians, Tanner realized the coach had given her the "start slowly" advice within hearing distance of the American swimmer. Hall said, "I knew what she was going to do. I knew she was feeling really dubious about the whole race. I felt like a million dollars walking out there."
Tanner ended the Games with two silvers and a bronze but was devastated at losing the gold. She competed in one more meet and then retired from competition at the age of 18. In the years that followed, she suffered from depression and anorexia, had two failed marriages, worked in a series of deadend jobs, distanced herself from her family and her children, and even lived in her car at one point. In 1987, she met John Watt, the man she credits with turning her life around. They married and currently work as vintage car dealers on the west coast.
During her brief career, Elaine Tanner won seventeen national titles, seven Commonwealth medals, five Pan Am medals, and three Olympic medals. She was the first woman to win four golds at the Commonwealth Games and, in 1966, became the youngest person ever to be named Canada's best female athlete. She was also named Canada's best overall athlete that same year. Tanner was made an Officer to the Order of Canada in 1970 and inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1971.
The Elaine Tanner Award has been presented annually to Canada's top junior female athlete since 1972.
Added 16 December 2002.