Stolen memories

Boycott of 1980 robbed swimmer Paula Kelly of her Olympic dream

John Browne jbrowne@thetelegram.com
Published on April 8, 2012

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.

jbrowne@thetelegram.com