Stolen memories

John Browne
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Boycott of 1980 robbed swimmer Paula Kelly of her Olympic dream

Paula Kelly belongs to a fairly exclusive club, one she wishes never existed. The St. John's native, who was inducted in the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, made Canada's 1980 Olympic swim team, but never got to compete because her country boycotted the Moscow Games based on the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

Last weekend, 32 years later, that 1980 team was honoured by Swimming Canada at a ceremony during the Canadian Olympic swimming trials in Montreal, and Kelly said the memories flooded back despite the passage in time.

She recalls being excited about making the team as a 15-year-old, and then frustrated and perplexed when told she wouldn't be going to Moscow.

The political decision to boycott the Games, led by the United States, still doesn't make any sense to Kelly.

Or most anyone else on that 1980 team, for that matter.

Kelly said she was surprised the majority of those attending the reunion felt the same way she did.

"A lot us had the same feelings, same emotions," she said from her St. John's home.

"They were bitter and felt cheated. I felt ripped off. At least one of those swimmers quit right after finding out we weren't going to Moscow. Other swimmers felt the boycott kept them from reaching their full potential and it shut down their swimming careers a lot sooner."

It was only years later she realized just exactly what she missed ... what had been taken away from her.

"I still remember being on the pool deck and my swim coach telling me that Canada wasn't going to the Olympics and thinking that's not very good," recalls Kelly.

"I was so young at the time. The full impact of what it meant not to go to the Olympics didn't really sink in.

"But as I got older, I remember it was very hard to watch the swimming competition at the 1984 Olympics because some of that '80 team were medalling. It was kind of sad. Wow, now you know what you missed."

These days, she says she can't help but watch the Olympic Games swimming competition.

Kelly's swimming career, though relatively short was, nonetheless, impressive. She swam in the 1977 Canada Summer Games in St. John's as a 12-year-old, and three years later, was the youngest athlete to make the Canadian Olympic swim team.

A St. John's and provincial athlete of the year, Kelly won a gold medal in Japan, a bronze medal in Hawaii and two sliver medals during international competition in 1979.

At one point in her career, Kelly was named Canada's best female breaststroke competitor by Swim Magazine.

Kelly has two boys, 12 and 10, but "sadly," she said, neither of them took to her sport.

Still, what's more important to her is they stay active, regardless of the sport or activity they choose.

After all, the important thing is to be allowed to play, isn't it? And being allowed to play still resonates with Kelly.

She also understands that not everyone can or wants to be a competitive swimmer. And making an Olympic team, well, that's an even more select company.

Kelly said it took her 32 years to realize there are not a lot of Olympians. It's something she's had time to digest.

"We're a small group, really," she said, and Olympians who didn't get to compete because of a boycott are an even smaller group.

"It was a unique situation," said Kelly

"No other Olympians can relate to our experience."

While she says it took long enough to finally be recognized, Kelly called the belated honour by Swimming Canada, "fabulous, and that's probably not a strong enough word to use.

"It was great to be able to reconnect with the swim team members from 1980, most of whom I still recognized," she said.

"It was really wonderful Swimming Canada recognized our team. I don't think they realized how much it meant to us."

Kelly said about 25 members of the '80 team, wearing 2012 Canada Olympic swim team jerseys, paraded past athletes attempting to make the team for the 2012 London Games at the Olympic Park Pool, and everyone exchanged high-fives.

"It was good to be in Montreal last weekend," said Kelly.

"I hope some of the young swimmers appreciate the fact they will be allowed to go to the London Games. I don't think the young swimmers now have any idea how it would feel not to go because they take for granted they are going to the Olympics if they've been picked."

Kelly said aside from meeting her old teammates, while in Montreal, she was able to get a copy of the 1980 team photo, which is "most precious" to her. She also has a picture of the team reunion and everyone received the book "Shattered Hopes: Canada's Boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games."

This country's decision to boycott the Moscow Games stole a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity from Kelly, who gave up the sport two years later.

The Soviets didn't leave Afghanistan until nine years later.

Canada became involved in the latest Afghanistan conflict in 2002 and there are still more than 2,000 Canadian personnel deployed in that country as part of a security force.

"I had no idea what Russia's invasion of Afghanistan meant at the time.," she said. "Now you look at that situation, and we are no further ahead."

There are no plans to boycott any future Games, and the irony of it all isn't lost on Kelly.

But she says while the boycott was a complete waste of time, in retrospect, she's taken much more from sport than a few medals.

"Even if in the end, sometimes, it doesn't pay off, never give up," said Kelly. "No matter what you are doing, you realize you are pretty strong inside.

Kelly said competing in sports from an early age taught her to trust herself "and figure things out for yourself. You learn what's important. You don't have Mom or Dad there all the time when you are on a trip. You learn to deal with winning and losing. You mature. You learn what's important, and if you want to do well, you have to put in the effort."

And that's something, she's learned, not even politicians can take from you.

"No ... no they can't," she said emphatically.

Organizations: Swimming Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall, Olympic Games London Games Olympic Park Pool

Geographic location: Canada, St. John's, Moscow Afghanistan Montreal Soviet Union United States Japan Hawaii Russia

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Recent comments

  • Catherine O'Hanley van de Poll
    July 29, 2012 - 13:58

    Paula, I also remember your accomplishments in the pool, and couldn't wait for you to come back to our classroom, to hear how you made out in your international swim meets. With those accomplishments and hard work, you made the Canadian Olympic Team, but also remember the disappointment when you learned that Canada was going to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. As we are watching the 2012 Olympics, I brag how I know an Olympian...her name is Paula Kelly...Way to go, Paula. We were so proud of you.

  • nancy day
    June 04, 2012 - 09:31

    Paula, I remember that year you made the Olympics as you were my idol back then when I swam. I can still see you swimming the Breaststroke , and can still remember you winning the gold and qualifying for the Olympics. Sad that you could not compete and still speak of you often , as I Coach a swim team (I have my own Club now in Sault Ste Marie ,Ont) and I still speak of you to my swimmers, My neice qualified for the Olympics 4 years ago, but suffered an injury and could not compete, tough for sure. You were and still are my Idol when it comes to swimming, Awesome article !!! Nancy Day (Sweetland)

  • Gerard Hagerty
    April 14, 2012 - 06:37

    You're still a champion Paula! You were such a model and hero to us as we saw you having the opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of the biggest stage in the world! You would have kicked butt! Warmest wishes to you!

  • mom
    April 09, 2012 - 17:44

    To me the Olympics has always been about bringing countries together as a gesture to overcome our many differences. I am always disappointed when there is a boycott for political reasons. I commend you on your hard work and strength Paula. It is apparent from your own words that you have the spirit of a true Olympian.

  • Ron Tizzard
    April 09, 2012 - 07:30

    Paula, I was never an athlete, but I, and uncountable numbers of other people through time, and others in time to come will have similar experiences while they may not be 'Olympic related'....just inexplicable 'injustices'. And, what do you do about them? We feel your pain, and we survived...I think we survived all the stronger as people, personalities...but without the notariety...somehow, through time we won 'our own personal medals' because we survived the throes of inexplicable curves thrown our ways...explanations wouldn't reduce the pain then or even you know Paula. What's around the corner for us? will you look? What kind of life would that be? No. we are the stronger for our experiences; experiencing special appreciations for some facts of life that others will never know. I think I'm all the better for it Paula,,,and I think you are...already. Best wishes. Remember, there are all kinds of medals in life.....most never worn around the neck! You take care, and take on sense is you are a Gold medalist already, in any event.

  • Ivan Tucker
    April 07, 2012 - 13:16

    i was never in contention,to be an Olympic competitor,but i did have a cousin England,who did track & field,& was considered to be one the top five,in her designated fields.She was sixteen.She has often told me of how much,she & others put into their training.Her coaches were more devastated,for those athletes,than for the time they worked with them. My cousin,continued to train for the 1984 Olympic games,but having qualified again,her luck was to tear a muscle in her hip a month before the .She & the rest of the Olympic team from 1980 received memorabilia,some years ago. There was also another girl,whose parents were from Bell Island,whose daughter,was a gymnast,& had also made the gymnastic team,& didn't get to compete.She was a medal hope for Canada that year.Sadly she passed from cancer,at an early age,in Cambridge,On. That boycott,also devastated those of us who loved to watch such wonderful amateurs compete,giving there all,win or lose.Being a Newfoundlander,our pride,was so staggering to have one of our own represent our province,& i remember that year,& reading of your,being picked for the Olympic team.The fact that you made the Olympic team,from all those to pick from,is such an awesome feat in itself.Always take pride,in that accomplishment alone. I was living in the Goulds back then,but moved to Ontario eight years ago.I am writing this to you,because,i do remember you,& that stupidity,carried out by,the Americans,& our own idiot government at the time.Idiot governments continue,but people like yourself,give people like myself,to admonish,our leaders,but look up to those of you,who gave so much of yourselves,to give us pride,in our province,& ourselves. Lastly,the next time i'm in Nl.,i would love the chance to meet you in person.You,your family take care & God Bless.