At the age of seven and a half, Jacinthe Taillon drew a picture of herself standing on a podium with the Olympic flame in her hand. She presented it to her mother and told her that she was going to go the Olympic Games. Sixteen years later, she stood on the Olympic podium in Sydney, Australia with her Canadian teammates, winning the bronze medal in the synchronized swimming team event.
Growing up in Saint-Eustache, a suburb north-west of Montreal, she loved to swim, and at seven had finished all of her Red Cross swimming classes, up to the white level. Although she wanted to be a lifeguard, she couldn’t pursue that any further until she had turned 14. Her mother continued to take her to the pool, where one day she spied synchro swimmers. She moved close to them and imitated their movements so well, that one of the coaches asked her mom if she’d consider putting Jacinthe into synchro swimming and join their team. She did, and just a few months later, she went to her first competition and won a silver medal!
Her parents recognized her innate competitive spirit. “They saw the fire in my eye and they saw that there was nothing they could do about the fact that I wanted to compete.” But she had to make a deal with her parents to make sure that school remained a priority, and she kept her grades up. “And as long as that was OK, the rest was going to be OK as well,” Jacinthe recalls. She feels grateful and blessed to have had her synchro career and had parents who followed along with her dreams. “They just said ‘it’s not what we thought but let’s get into it and follow your passion.’”
Her first club was Les Aquanautes in Saint-Eustache. She also trained in Laval, Dollard-des-Ormeaux and in Montreal. Named to the junior national team in 1993, the team won the gold medal at her first big international competition, the 1993 FINA World Junior Synchronised Swimming Championships in Leeds, England. She spent another two years with the junior team, moving to the National B team, and then was named to the National A team in 1997 after the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta.
She recalls the experience of competing in Sydney at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games as perfect! “You work so hard for something and in synchro you swim in a team, but it’s not a team event where you play a game against an opponent. In synchro, everything is figured out in advance, and everybody needs to have their perfect performance on the same day for it to work. You can’t have one team member who doesn’t play as well on that day, who doesn’t do as well, because it just shows like the nose in the middle of a face. You just cannot have one member of the team who doesn’t feel good that day. You can’t hide it. We had worked really hard to know what everybody needed to be in their best performance mode on the given day, so we knew what everybody needed to be in their zone.”
There was added pressure on the team in Sydney. Overall Canada’s Olympic team was behind in medal expectations, and the synchro swimmers kept hearing from many sources that they were going to win a medal. The hopes of the larger Canadian team weighed heavily on their shoulders as they prepared for their final swim on the second last day of the Games.
Their technical routine had gone really well, and Jacinthe can recall very clearly that moment when they got into the ready room to prepare for the free routine. “We could feel that there was something not going well. There were just too many nerves. So we made a circle and held each other’s hands and we just breathed together. And at that moment something happened. There was a sort of a calm and confidence. We looked each other in the eyes and we said ‘Oh my gosh, we know that everybody here can do this and we know that everybody has done the work and we know that we are here for a reason and it’s going to work.’”
She is certain everyone on that team would tell you the same thing – that something happened between the members of that team at that moment that carried right through the performance. She could feel it even as they were competing, “As we were swimming, I knew that we were going to get that medal. And I was the first one in the front of the pattern. When we finished the routine, we ended with our fists up in the air. And every other competition when I put my arm down I always looked around to see the faces of the team to see if something had gone wrong. And that day I didn’t. I knew it. And it was a really special performance. We did our best performance ever at the Games – and that is priceless.”
The team came out of the pool, and had to stand and wait for their scores. They were the last team to swim, so they knew the small number at the bottom of the screen would indicate their placement. When the 3 appeared, indicating a bronze medal, it was a very special moment for the entire team.
Getting ready for the podium brought back a wry memory. On the morning of the competition, Jacinthe had a list of everything to bring, noseplugs, towels, headpieces etc. And at the bottom of the list, it said podium shirt. It was a hockey jersey style shirt the athletes had in Sydney to wear on the podium for medals. She remembers “it was 7:00 a.m. that morning and I was so stressed out, and then I read that ‘podium shirt’. So I remember I stuffed it way in the bottom of my bag. I didn’t want to see it and I didn’t want to think about it.”
Then after they had finished, as they were being rushed through the mixed zone (where reporters interview athletes) really fast and everyone was yelling quick, quick, “I was taking my towel out of my bag, and then I saw my podium shirt! And I just said Wow – it really happened.” She remembers standing on the podium, and being able to pick her parents out of the crowd because her dad was wearing the Australian hat she had bought for him.
Although she had been planning for a post-Games career in journalism, she was thinking about covering news, politics and international affairs. A call from Radio-Canada sports changed that when they invited her to join their sports division. They were impressed by her comfort speaking to the media as an athlete and now wanted her to join their sport coverage team.
Her first live event was a Montreal Canadiens hockey match. She recalls the discomfort of going from something she knew and being at “the best at what I used to do”, and being thrown into something so new. It was a challenging time, and she credits her synchro career with giving her the strength to get through.
She also credits that competitive spirit, which was evident as just seven years old, for adding the drive to see her succeed in broadcasting. “I can’t put into words how High Performance sport has changed me. It’s not always easy. Synchronized swimming is a very tough sport both mentally and physically. In my case, it really, really made me strong and it made me the person who I am today.”
Just four years after competing in the Sydney Games, she was on the coverage team for Radio-Canada at the 2004 Athens Olympic Summer Games, as an analyst for synchronized swimming and mixed zone interviewer for swimming and diving. That also provided one of her favourite moments, as she worked on the broadcast for the synchro events while her sister Isabelle Taillon was the head coach of Canada’s national team.
Since then, she has attended every Olympic Games with the exception of 2012 in London. Other favourite moments include covering Michael Phelps’ incomparable swimming career, and reporting on athletes who trained at the same centre in Montreal, divers Alexandre Despatie and Emilie Heymans. She also enjoyed interviewing Canada’s swimmers following their outstanding medal performances in the pool in Rio.
Jacinthe has traded the water of the synchro pool for frozen ice as she prepares for her role with Radio-Canada at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. She will be presenting figure skating with analyst Alain Goldberg and interviewing short track athletes in the mixed zone after their races.
For that young girl who drew the picture of herself standing on the podium, the Olympic flame continues to burn brightly, now in the broadcasting realm.
Follow Jacinthe on Twitter: @JTaillon