This was supposed to be the happily-ever-after part for Sylvie
Frechette. 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. Frechette 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.
This is an article from the July 30, 1996 issue
Not quite. To the surprise of most of her countrymen--and some
of her rivals--the 29-year-old Frechette 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 Frechette 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," Frechette says, "but the part before was a
The nightmare began on July 18, 1992, just one week before the
Barcelona Games. Shortly after 3 p.m. Frechette returned from a
practice session and a photo shoot to the suburban Montreal
condominium she shared with her fiance 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. Frechette 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 Frechette, the
favorite for the gold medal in synchro's solo event, was to
Frechette made her plane. She swallowed hard, gave a press
conference at the airport, walked up a ramp and buckled her seat
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 Sauve, 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?
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,"
Frechette 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 Frechette finally bring herself to visit Lake's
gravestone in Montreal.
Frechette 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 Frechette 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
Frechette'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 Frechette 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 Frechette
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, Frechette traded her silver for gold before
2,000 cheering fans at the Montreal Forum. (Babb-Sprague was
allowed to keep her gold medal.)
Frechette 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," Frechette
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, Frechette
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, Frechette 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,
Frechette 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.
But Frechette's return stirred some resentment in Canada. Speed
skater Gaetan Boucher, the country's most decorated Olympian,
criticized Frechette 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
The criticism quieted down after last December's Olympic trials,
at which Frechette earned two 10s--"My first since Barcelona,"
she says, all smiles--and placed second. Before Frechette 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.
Frechette, Bremner and six teammates will perform in unison for
Canada. There will be no chance for Frechette to shine as an
Frechette 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."