Our Olympic Dream

Our Olympic Dream

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Our Olympic Dream

People talk about world peace, and I wish that there was some way to extend the experiences of international athletes to everyone. Thus enlightened, we would have a much better chance at achieving that world peace.

Brian Orser

It didn’t start out as an Olympic dream. Back in elementary school in Montreal, we were a pair of overweight, uncoordinated twins. During gym class, when teams were chosen, it didn’t matter if the game was baseball, dodge ball or lacrosse, we were always last to be picked.

It was so bad, our teacher said to us one day, “Penny and Vicky, you have been chosen, along with four other kids, to miss music class and go to remedial gym.” This was because neither one of us could catch or throw a ball. We were totally mortified.

Although this humiliation whittled away at our self-esteem, we continued to try other sports and activities outside of school. Then, at age eight, we discovered synchronized swimming. It was as if the sport had chosen us, since it was the only one we were good at, and we loved it.

It was an ideal sport for identical twins, and we had great fun creating routines to music. We passionately loved working with other swimmers and our coaches and practiced incredibly hard. Each year we set higher goals and became more successful. Then, in 1979, at the age of fifteen, we were thrilled to represent Québec at the Canada Games. Subsequent victories allowed us to travel all over the world, and our dream to participate in the Olympics was born.

We achieved many of our goals, including being seven-time Canadian synchronized swimming duet champions, and World champions in Team. We were thrilled to be the first duet in the world to ever receive a perfect mark of “10”.

But to our great disappointment, the 1980 Olympic Games eluded us when they were boycotted by many countries, including Canada. Then, in 1984, we didn’t make the team. After fourteen years of training and striving, we had to accept that our Olympic dream would remain out of reach. We retired from swimming to finish our degrees at McGill and start our careers.

Then, one day five years later, while watching a synchro competition, we both experienced an unexpected sensation. We suddenly realized our Olympic dream was still alive, and we could no longer ignore it. On April Fool’s Day, 1990, we decided to make an unprecedented comeback and shoot for the 1992 Olympics. We were afraid to announce our plans in case we didn’t make it, but in the end, we were more afraid of not trying and having to live with the thought of “What if?” We decided to give it our all, and take pride in simply doing our best. “Si on n’essaie pas, on ne le saura jamais!” we said—“If we don’t try, we’ll never know!”

Everyone said it would be impossible. But our intense desire provided the energy needed to persevere. We only had two years to get back in shape and be among the best in the world. No swimmer had ever come back after a five-year absence, especially not at the age of twenty-seven!

We weren’t eligible for any funding, so we both maintained full-time jobs and trained five hours every day after work. We still had to support ourselves and fund all our travel to international competitions. We were determined to succeed, vowing, “Nothing will stop us this time.” For two full years we maintained that gruelling schedule without ever knowing if we’d make it.

Thankfully, we had four dedicated coaches from Québec who poured their hearts and souls into helping us achieve our dream. Julie was our head coach, André directed our weight training, Richard helped us improve our conditioning and Denise helped with our accuracy in the water. We never could have done it without them.

We were pushed to our physical limits during training since we had to make up for the five years off. Through it all, however, we still loved it and maintained our sense of humour. Sometimes we laughed so hard with Julie we ran out of air and ended up sinking to the bottom of the pool. Julie helped us to continue believing in ourselves. We can still hear her saying: “Okay les jumelles, vous êtes capables!” — “Okay, twins, you can do this!”

The day of the Olympic trials finally came. We were confident but nervous. We could hardly breathe as we waited to hear our marks in finals. When they were announced, we jumped up and down hugging each other—we had won by 0.04! In that incredible moment we realized we were finally going to live our Olympic dream!

We could hardly contain our excitement as Canada’s ’92 Olympic team gathered in Toronto, en route to Barcelona. When we received our Olympic outfits, we felt just like kids at Christmas! Then Ken Read, our chef de mission, called a meeting and said to the group: “Congratulations and welcome to the Canadian Olympic Team! You are now Olympians and no one will ever take that away from you.”

Our Olympic experience was unforgettable. During the opening ceremonies, we were thrilled to walk into the packed stadium to thunderous applause, with hundreds of Canadian flags being waved. We also found out how much support we had from Canadians everywhere. Thanks to the Olympic Mailbag Program organized by Canada Post, our spirits received a tremendous lift during those last few stressful days of training. Many Canadians wrote their thoughts and wishes on a postcard simply addressed to “Penny and Vicky Vilagos—Barcelona.” After practice each day, we rushed to dig through the giant pile of bright yellow postcards sent to the Canadian team, and pick out those addressed to us. They came in French and in English, from old childhood friends in Montreal and Québec, complete strangers, former athletes, and proud Canadians young and old. They inspired us, made us laugh and even made us cry. Imagine how we felt when we read this incredible message:

Dear Penny and Vicky: You are swimming my dream. I used to be able to swim two lengths of the pool in a single breath. I am now disabled and can no longer swim at all. I am sending you my strength—May the sun shine on you.

And the sun did shine on us in Barcelona.

Finally, our big day came. We felt considerable stress knowing millions of viewers would be watching, but we were ready. As we stepped onto the pool deck and heard, “Competitor #9 . . . Canada!” we almost burst with pride. As the Canadians cheered and waved their flags, we looked at the water to focus on the job at hand. The temptation in the moment was to reflect on the 30,000 hours of training it had taken to get here, but there would be time for that later. . . .

Swimming for Canada that day was magical. Despite the stress, we enjoyed every moment. As the music ended and the applause began, we looked up at Julie, and her expression told us what we already felt—we had given the performance of our lives!

Finally, wearing our Canada tracksuits, we marched around the pool for the medal ceremony. As we stepped on the podium to receive our silver medals, in our minds our coaches were there with us to share this special moment. As we watched the flag go up, the awareness that so many Canadians were proud of us made it that much better.

Still floating on a cloud, it was soon time for the closing ceremonies. We’ll remember forever the electric atmosphere in the stadium as everyone swayed back and forth and joined in singing “Amigos Para Siempre,” or “Friends for Life”. And then it began to sink in—after twenty-one years, our Olympic dream had finally come true!

Penny and Vicky Vilagos
Montreal, Québec

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