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Canadian diver Caeli McKay finds her strength during and after Olympic Games

CALGARY — Caeli McKay doesn't call herself a wimp anymore because she knows she's not. The Canadian diver has discovered in herself a battler who can compete in pain at the highest levels of her sport.
Caeli McKay (left) and Meghan Benfeito comfort each other as they see their fourth place marks in the women’s 10m synchronized diving competition during the Tokyo Olympics in Tokyo, Japan on Tuesday July 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Frank Gunn

CALGARY — Caeli McKay doesn't call herself a wimp anymore because she knows she's not.

The Canadian diver has discovered in herself a battler who can compete in pain at the highest levels of her sport. The 22-year-old Calgarian dove with damaged ankle ligaments in last summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

"I never felt like the strongest person," McKay told The Canadian Press. "I always felt like I could do more, I always felt like I could push harder. I always kind of told myself I was a wimp.

"This experience taught me how strong I am, how much pain I can push through and how much mental and emotional pain I could push through. I definitely have better self-talk.

"I really appreciate now how strong I am."

While dryland training at Olympic trials a year ago, McKay caught her foot between a mat and a box she was jumping from. She badly tore ligaments in her left ankle, which compromised her ability to launch from the 10-metre tower.

She'd already qualified to dive with Meaghan Benfeito in Olympic synchronized diving based on the duo's previous international results.

McKay couldn't compete at trials for an individual 10-metre berth, but soldiered on to dive with Benfeito in Tokyo. They placed fourth, less than a point out from the podium.

McKay pushed herself around the Olympic village on a scooter to keep weight off her ankle.

"We didn't know whether she was going to be able to compete," Diving Canada chief technical officer Mitch Geller said. "You know what? She does compete. She bit down on some leather and they did a fantastic job."

Just over a year past her injury date, McKay's ankle is still an issue. After finishing second in nationals last month, McKay isn't competing in the four-day FINA Grand Prix concluding Sunday in her hometown.

Calgary's Grand Prix is a chance for Canadian and international divers to hone their performance for the world championship June 17 to July 3 in Budapest, Hungary.

McKay is preserving her ankle for the world championship.

"I definitely did a number on it at the Olympics. It didn't heal the proper way," she said. "It was all my choice to push through the pain and I knew the consequences. I knew it was going to be a harder recovery. I knew that it was going to linger and I know that I probably won't ever have a normal ankle.

"Right now, we're still kind of starting to do more investigation into why I'm having more pain, but it's more of a chronic pain situation, more like a tendinitis kind of situation."

McKay also navigated a common post-Olympic feeling among athletes: after achieving my lifelong dream, why don't I feel different when others treat me differently?

There's also a "what now?" feeling and the urge to quickly get back to the pool or the gym to replace that feeling.

"I've been pretty open, speaking about post-Olympic depression," McKay said. "I think it's something that's really important for athletes to talk about. It's the highest high you'll have and you get home. You don't feel as different as you thought you were going to feel being an Olympian.

"I was proud to have dove well with one ankle. I was proud to have got fourth by such a small amount. Of course, it's heartbreaking, but I was very, very proud of myself.

"I came back and . . . (people) ask you how you did and they're really excited or they're not. That's kind of all it is for a few months. That's all you're identified as. For me, that was really hard. I don't feel any different, but that's the only significant thing people are talking about. I feel like I have the same value I had before the Olympic Games."

McKay was helped through her post-Olympic phase by her fiancé and former teammate Vincent Riendeau. The two-time Olympian retired after diving in Rio in 2016 and Tokyo.

"Vince was very good with me before the Olympics because he had been to Rio and he went through his post-Olympic depression," McKay said.

"He was kind of warning me. I was like 'ah, that's not going to happen' and then it happened and I was like 'OK, I've got to get back to diving.' I felt like I needed to because I still felt I had something to prove since we got fourth.

"He was like 'no, you don't' because he made the mistake of going back to diving way too fast after the Olympics and not taking the time to have a normal month where you go out for dinner, you see family, you go on a trip."

Their wedding is later this summer following the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, and a year and a day after their engagement.

McKay continues to do the mental training and visualization in diving that can help compensate for those times when her ankle limits her reps on the boards.

"I'm not doing 100 per cent of my training. I'm doing 50 per cent and the other 50 per cent I'm trying to do mentally," she said. "It's definitely a tool that I learned how to use more efficiently and effectively. I think it's going to be a helpful tool for me."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2022.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press