She was a unique Canadian phenomenon, a small package of talent and determination, with boundless energy and simple charm who for a time captured the imagination of an entire country.
Arguably one of Canada’s greatest and most versatile swimmers in history, she pioneered Canadian swimming internationally and laid the foundation of excellence for others to follow.
Other swimmers towered over her, and as she competed with those so much bigger and older than she was, Elaine earned the nickname “Mighty Mouse”. The name would follow her throughout her career. Decades later celebrating her 40th anniversary since the 1968 Olympics she is still called “Mighty Mouse”.
Elaine never wanted to become a celebrity, nor did she want to be different from her friends, but as time passed people found it impossible to think of Elaine Tanner as an ordinary kid. By 1966, “Mighty Mouse” was already pushing closer to World Record times at 15 years of age. Howard Firby gradually molded her talented body into one of the fastest swimming machines in the world.
She had been swimming for nine years now and had just won six Gold Medals at the Canadian Championships. She could swim every stroke, but she was especially talented in the backstroke and butterfly.
At age 15, Elaine was already planning to enter the US National Championships. Neither Elaine nor her coach had any financial support, and though her coach could not go, the determined “Mighty Mouse”, the unknown underdog, went to the US Nationals.
Despite being young, and without a coach, Elaine stunned the Americans and the press with two Gold Medals, set two US records, and later added a Bronze Medal.
The press frantically tried to talk with this unknown athlete and the Americans wondered, “Who is this? Where did she come from?” exclaiming, “She wasn’t very big was she!”
Elaine missed 3 days of school and was in a hurry to get back to Vancouver with her only supporter -- her mother.
1966 Jamaica Commonwealth Games
When asked by a reporter prior to leaving Canada, “What are you coming back with?” Elaine replied, “A tan.” Two historic Canadian moments were about to transpire.
Elaine would make history by winning a record 7 medals; 4 Gold and 3 Silver. She was the first athelete in history to win quad gold at any Commonwealth Games, and was awarded the most outstanding athelete in Jamaica. She also set two World Records; one in the 220 Butterfly and another in the 440 Individual Medley.
Historical Note: Raising of the new Canadian Flag
Elaine had made a perfect start against the favourite Australian freestyle relay team. The lead stood up as her teammates, Jane Hughes, Louise Kennedy and Marion Lay followed her into the water. They won the race by 3/10s of a second and set a World Record.
Elaine was honoured to stand alongside her teammates on the winner's podium and watch Canadian history as the new maple leaf flag was raised for the very first time at an International Games.
1967 Pan Am Games Winnipeg
She was not only Canada’s best swimmer, she was also the most versatile. Despite her versatility, Elaine concentrated on the backstroke and butterfly.
Before a crowd of enthusiastic Canadians, “Mighty Mouse” put on a fantastic performance. In the 200 Meter backstroke, she held the lead at the first turn, and the crowd buzzed. At 100 meters they were shouting. At the three quarter mark they were standing and stamping their feet. In the last 50 meters the noise was deafening, for they could see by the electronic timer that Elaine had a chance to beat the World Record. When she did, the cheers of the 2500 spectators almost lifted the roof from the building later nicknamed “Tanner’s Tank”. There were many tears of joy when “O’ Canada” was played and Elaine received her Gold Medal. (Elaine pictured above with Mark Spitz after they each achieved World Record breaking times.)
Elaine won anther Gold and set another World Record in the 100 meter backstroke. She won two Silver Medals on the 100 and 200 meter butterfly. Mark Spitz and Elaine were the pool darlings of these Games. By now the entire country had heard of Elaine Tanner, “Mighty Mouse”.
Weeks Prior to the 1968 Olympics
Elaine and her long-time coach, Howard Firby, had become a winning combination like a finely tuned instrument together. To everyone's total disbelief, Howard was not allowed to coach her during the most important race of her life. At 17 years old Elaine was the country's best hope for Gold at the 1968 Olympics.
Firby was replaced by a political appointee, an inexperienced coach in whom the team had lost faith. The team eventually trained on their own. Training in Banff may have seemed to be a wise choice because of the high altitude, but no one checked the availability of a competitive sized pool. There were none. Shocked, Elaine and the entire team were forced to train in a small recreation facility called The Cave and Basin Pool managed by Parks Canada for 6 weeks prior to the Olympics.
During their training, the whole team got food poisoning. This was obviously not the start they had anticipated.
The 1968 Olympics
By the time the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City began, the pressure on 17 year old Elaine was enormous. Not only the press, but the entire country, expected her to win. The pressure building up to the Olympics was about to take its toll on her.
As Ralph Hutton, a Silver Medalist on the Canadian team said in a CBC interview decades later “I could see the change in her. Looking back I wish I could have said something or stepped up. I’ll always regret that”.
In an interview for a biography on Elaine, Marion Lay, women’s team captain and member of the Medal-winning relay team said “1968 was the worst organized games ever by Canada”.
Nick Thierry, publisher of Swim News Canada, also an official world swimming statistician and hall of fame historian, says, "the executives from Canada in 1968, in addition to contributing to Elaine's coaching blunders, made other decisions that affected Elaine and the women's relay team." Canada's top swim executive at the time politically interfered with "the selection of the women's relay team," and that decision "cost Canada a higher place on the podium."
Nick was also in attendance as a spectator at the pool in Mexico and witnessed Elaine and the team's performances first hand. These independent quotes are only mentioned to factually support and help describe and understand "the troubled waters and atmosphere" Elaine found herself in leading up to and at the Olympics in Mexico City.
Elaine competed well, winning all her heats and semi-finals, and set 2 Olympic records.
Moments before her final of the 100 meter backstroke, the team coach told her to change from her usual fast start to a slower start due to the altitude. She always went out fast and kept going. No one ever caught her.
Nervous, stressed, and always compliant, she changed her race strategy and held back. She started to doubt herself, wondering “What if I lose?”
Decades later in a CBC interview Kaye Hall of the US, who just edged Elaine out of the Gold by 5/10ths of a second, acknowledged that she overheard this conversation. “I thought I had just won the lottery”, she exclaimed. This inexperienced coach had assisted her in beating Elaine for the first and only time in her career.
Hall stated in a recent article in 2006, “The stars were all aligned for me for that moment in time. Elaine was catching up to me. If the pool was any longer she would have flown passed me. I got lucky”. She added “Unfortunately for Elaine, it was all bad luck”.
Losing her race, Elaine was shocked and to this day does not remember receiving her Silver Medal, or standing on the podium. She was traumatized.
The media immediately converged on her. Nancy Greene Raine, olympic skier and now a Senator in Canada, was doing television work for CBC at the Games vividly recalled Tanner's pain.
“She climbed out of the pool and one of the journalists asked, 'Why did you lose, Elaine?' It was as if someone had smacked her in the face. Her face fell, she answered a few more questions and you could see her start sobbing.”
Harry Jerome, Canada's 100 meter sprinter who had his own experience of disappointment in previous Olympics having been hounded by media pressure and the toll it took on him could see what was happening to Elaine. Acting spontaneoulsy he scooped her out of the frenzy of reporters and grabbed an official's car without permission. He then sped her away to an old Mexican Cantina where he introduced Elaine to her first alcoholic drink – a rum and coke.
The press and public had touted for months a guarantee that Tanner was unbeatable. So when Elaine came home with 3 of the total 5 medals for Canada, the headlines still read, “Tanner Loses Gold.” This reinforced her feelings that she had failed her country and its 25 million Canadians.
Ironically neither she, the media, nor the sport authorities in Canada recognized the historic significance of her Olympic achievements which had been so unfairly overshadowed by the initial negative response to the expectations placed upon her. In reality Elaine's triple medal performance in a single games was a historic first for a Canadian, coupled with the first ever swim medal of any colour for a female, and the first Olympic medal won by a women's team in her 400 freestyle relay. So instead of returning to Canada as a national hero of which she had earned by her historical accomplishments, she was quickly shuffled to the sidelines as the girl who lost the gold.
For a 17 year old girl with a strict family upbringing and little or no emotional support, she was told to “Just get on with it”. With the sports governing body nowhere in sight, and with the media scrutinizing her at every turn, Elaine was shattered and left alone.
Here was a perfect young girl who super-achieved not only in sports, but also in school. This was a girl who had become a blind obedient soldier, left to fall at the mercy of this scrutiny; and fall she did, into the depths for over 2 decades which she later called her “emotional black hole”.
Historical Note: October 1970 FLQ Crisis
Around the time the FLQ kidnapped and murdered the high-profile government official Pierre Laporte, Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the “War Measures Act.” Elaine was a guest of the federal government and was personally escorted around Parliament Hill by the official Speaker of the House, Lucien Lamoureux. Elaine and Lamoureux were whisked off under the heavy security of the RCMP, fearing a possible kidnapping attempt.