Alan Hudes, National Post Staff | Sep 21, 2012 9:25 PM ET
TORONTO — Émilie Heymans loves training with younger divers, and showing them what it takes to reach the top.
Alexandre Despatie was happy just to be able to jump off the board in London, after a serious head injury nearly took away that dream.
Karen Cockburn is proud of her golden teammate Rosie MacLennan for putting the sport of trampoline in the Canadian spotlight.
Simon Whitfield will remember “the camaraderie, the competition, and that last kilometre,” where he infamously crashed out of his final Olympic triathlon.
And Clara Hughes — the veteran, and dual-sport stalwart for the Canadian Olympic Team over 22 years — gave it her all until her very last moment.
These are the irreplaceable experiences that made Friday for these athletes and others so bittersweet.
“It was actually really special, and it really made it sink it that I’m no longer an Olympian,” Hughes said at the concluding celebration for the Olympic Heroes Parade, held at Maple Leaf Square in downtown Toronto. “Today, I guess, is the last day … And just to see everybody coming and saying thank you to us, waving their flags, and all the kids, gives me really great hope for the Olympic spirit in Canada in the years to come.”
The parade was an opportunity to see their Olympic heroes from London and honour their accomplishments.
But for these five athletes, it also served as the end of a journey that has occupied their lives for several years. Each has been to at least four Games — with Hughes having competed at six, split between summer and winter.
“It took a lot for me to be [at the Olympics],” Despatie said of his comeback. “There were a lot of curveballs thrown at me. But I don’t regret one bit having gone … It felt amazing and especially after, when I was done everything, I realized all the work [he had done].
“I discovered about myself so much when I was there, about how much I can handle and push through … to reach my objectives.”
While Despatie admitted he still loves diving and would like to continue for another year in order to compete at the 2013 world championship, the Laval, Que., native is aware that it might be time for he and Heymans to pass the torch.
“It’s great that we have some divers that are going to be very competitive in the next few years for Rio,” Despatie said of the 2016 Games. “That’s what days like this are all about. The kids see us and they might get motivated to start moving to do some sports.”
Cockburn knows her time on the world stage could also be coming to an end, after winning three Olympic medals. Though undecided about the Rio Olympics, the 31-year-old has trained with MacLennan for several years, and has been mentoring her younger teammate to prepare for that significant moment of transition.
“I’ve known [MacLennan] since she was eight years old, so I’ve seen her from beginner, raised to Olympic gold medallist,” Cockburn said. “Just working with her and the friendship we’ve built is so unique.
“Rosie knew I was just a girl from her gym and that I’d won medals so she knew she could do that [too] and now people are looking to [her].”
The toughest goodbye of all, though, just might be Hughes. The soon-to-be 40-year-old from Glen Sutton, Que., via Winnipeg made a spirited comeback to cycling this summer after competing in speed skating for three Winter Games. Though she did not medal in London, Hughes remains tied as the most-decorated Canadian Olympian with six medals, although winning those were never her main focus.
“I’m, more than anything, just grateful that I had the chance to try six times in my life — winter and summer,” Hughes said. “And I think that’s a testament to the possibilities that Canada allows for its citizens that really, anything you dream of doing, no matter how crazy it is, you can at least try. I tried every time, and 22 years later after I started, I’m finally done. It’s a pretty amazing thing.