Illustrated Daily, July 30, 1996

Sports Illustrated Daily Feature Story

On the Bright Side

After tragedy and travesty in 1992, Sylvie Fréchette of Canada is thinking only good thoughts in Atlanta.

by Michael Farber

This was supposed to be the happily-ever-after part for Sylvie Fréchette. Sixteen months after the 1992 Barcelona Games, at which the world's best synchronized swimmer had been robbed of a gold medal by a scoring blunder, the fairy godfathers of the International Olympic Committee waved their magic wands and transformed her silver medal into the gold one she deserved. Justice was done. Fréchette put sports behind her and went off to have a wonderful life, hosting a TV show, giving motivational speeches and basking in the love of her nation, Canada. The End.

Sylvie Fréchette

Dazed in Barcelona, synchro swimmer Fréchette wants to enjoy these games.

photograph by
Gerry Thomas

Not quite. To the surprise of most of her countrymen—and some of her rivals—the 29-year-old Fréchette is back for another Olympics, competing for Canada when the synchronized swimming competition begins tonight at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. Despite the gold medal that now sits in a Montreal bank vault, she feels a hollowness. When Fréchette thinks back to Barcelona, to what should have been the greatest weeks of her life, she remembers only tragedy and travesty. "Maybe the ending to my story was perfect," Fréchette says, "but the part before was a nightmare."

The nightmare began on July 18, 1992, just one week before the Barcelona Games. Shortly after 3 p.m. Fréchette returned from a practice session and a photo shoot to the suburban Montreal condominium she shared with her fiancé and business manager, Sylvain Lake. The smell of exhaust filled the condo. All the windows were shut, but a door leading to the garage was open. Lake's car was in the garage, motor running. Fréchette found Lake's body in the bedroom. He had committed suicide.

Lake, who ran the 400 meters for Canada at the 1987 World University Games, was scheduled to leave that night for Barcelona to work as a track analyst for a French-language Canadian television network. Four days later Fréchette, the favorite for the gold medal in synchro's solo event, was to follow.

Fréchette made her plane. She swallowed hard, gave a press conference at the airport, walked up a ramp and buckled her seat belt.

Her quiet courage won the hearts of millions of Canadians. When she reached Barcelona she was inundated with postcards offering condolences, support, best wishes. Some of the cards had a harsher message, but Julie Sauvé, her coach, weeded out most of those. They asked: How could she not know about Sylvain's mental state? How could she not see the signs? How can she be so self-centered and fly off to the Olympics?

Sylvie Fréchette

Fréchette's gold medal effort in Barcelona went unrewarded for more than a year.

photograph by
Richard Mackson

She had an easy answer then: Sylvain, as a former athlete, would have wanted her to go to Barcelona. But his death—and many months of reflecting on it—took an emotional toll on her.

"I'm alive, I'm happy, but the hole in your life never fills," Fréchette says now. "I did feel guilty for a while. I doubted myself. Should I have known?" Lake did not leave a suicide note, and she still does not know why he killed himself. Only last year could Fréchette finally bring herself to visit Lake's gravestone in Montreal.

Fréchette was still in a state of shock when she arrived in Barcelona. "My body was in Barcelona, but my mind was somewhere else," she says. "I felt like I was eavesdropping on someone else's life. I was like this little robot. Little flashes come back to me. I don't remember the [Olympic] Village. The only thing I remember about the opening ceremonies is it was long and I was sitting on the wet ground at the stadium."

What happened to Fréchette in the preliminary round of the solo competition was dumbfounding. Brazilian judge Ana Maria da Silveira Lobo inadvertently tapped in a score of 8.7 for one of Fréchette's compulsory figures—the other judges' scores ranged from 9.2 to 9.6—and when the flustered Da Silveira Lobo tried to change it, she again pressed the wrong button. Da Silveira Lobo, who had wanted to give Fréchette a 9.7, couldn't make her English understood to the Japanese assistant referee, and suddenly the 8.7 was on the board, irretrievable.

The Canadian protest to FINA, swimming's governing body, was ineffectual, and the next day in the solo final Fréchette started too many points behind Kristen Babb-Sprague of the U.S. to catch her. She accepted her silver with the unflagging grace she had shown over the previous three weeks, and that would have been that if it weren't for Dick Pound.

In the months following the Games, Pound, an IOC executive board member from Montreal and a former Olympic swimmer, nudged FINA and also spoke to the president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch. In December 1993, upon FINA's recommendation and with the IOC's blessing, Fréchette traded her silver for gold before 2,000 cheering fans at the Montreal Forum. (Babb-Sprague was allowed to keep her gold medal.)

Fréchette had lost her martyrdom, but she did have a gold medal, a public relations position with the National Bank of Canada, a TV interview program called Simplement Sylvie, a calendar thick with speaking engagements and a new companion, Yves Cayouette, who she is still with today. "We laugh, we talk," Fréchette says. "I don't think there are enough days in my life to discover everything there is to know about him."

Yet even as her life took all those wonderful turns, Fréchette felt that she had missed out on something: the Olympics. The Barcelona Games belonged to Da Silveira Lobo and Babb-Sprague and the memory of Lake.

And so, in November 1994, Fréchette came out of retirement. She put on hold her TV career, her speaking engagements and her new boyfriend and spent the winter about 2,000 miles from her Montreal home, training with the synchro swimming team seven hours a day at its Edmonton training site.

If any synchro swimmer could return after a two-year layoff, Fréchette could. She has been competing in the sport since she was seven years old. The combination of artistic expression and physical strength has set her apart, as she is able to execute her movements clearly and propel herself high out of the water. Her solo routine in Barcelona, to the music of composer Vangelis, brought fans to their feet.

Sylvie Fréchette

On a sports awards show, magician Alain Choquette was up to his old tricks in a spot with Fréchette.

photograph courtesy of
Sylvie Fréchette

But Fréchette's return stirred some resentment in Canada. Speed skater Gaétan Boucher, the country's most decorated Olympian, criticized Fréchette because she had reaped a publicity bonanza with her retirement, and now she was commanding the spotlight again with her comeback.

"I really feel she's hurting the sport," said Carolyn Waldo, an Ottawa sportscaster who was a synchro double gold medalist for Canada at the 1988 Seoul Games. "I got a letter from one young swimmer who said she was quitting because with all these people coming back"—five other Canadian women also attempted comebacks—"there would be no chance to go to the Olympics. Maybe Sylvie should never have retired and raised the hopes of young swimmers."

The criticism quieted down after last December's Olympic trials, at which Fréchette earned two 10s—"My first since Barcelona," she says, all smiles—and placed second. Before Fréchette swam, Janice Bremner, one of the young swimmers who had complained about the spate of comebacks, approached her on the pool deck and gave her a hug. "I told her I was really happy to be standing here with her," Bremner says. "She was one of my swimming idols. I watched her in Barcelona. I'm proud to be on a team with her."

Since Barcelona the format for synchronized swimming in the Olympics has changed. The solo and duet competitions, which originated at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, have been eliminated and replaced by one event in Atlanta: team competition. Fréchette, Bremner and six teammates will perform in unison for Canada. There will be no chance for Fréchette to shine as an individual star.

Fréchette isn't bothered by that. She went to Atlanta not to find personal glory but to immerse herself in the Olympic experience—the spirit, the friendships, the pageantry—so she can savor it forever.

"Jumping back into the pool isn't logical," she says. "It seems like I had everything I wanted. Coming back looks like I have everything to lose. But I'm not coming back to lose. I'm coming back to gain. Twenty-one years I've been doing this, and I want something to remember."

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