Canadian diver Caeli McKay finds her strength during and after the Olympics
CALGARY — Caeli McKay doesn’t call herself a wimp anymore because she knows she isn’t.
The Canadian diver has found herself a fighter capable of competing in pain at the highest levels of her sport. The 22-year-old Calgarian dived with damaged ankle ligaments during last summer’s Olympics 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 thought I was a wimp.
“This experience has taught me how strong I am, how much pain I can overcome, and how much mental and emotional pain I can overcome. I definitely have better self-talk.
“I really appreciate now how strong I am.”
While training on dry land at the 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 take off from the 10-meter tower.
She had already qualified to dive with Meaghan Benfeito in Olympic synchronized diving based on the duo’s previous international results.
McKay was unable to compete at the trials for an individual spot at 10 meters, but persevered to dive with Benfeito in Tokyo. They placed fourth, less than a point from the podium.
McKay pushed herself through the Olympic Village on a scooter so as not to weigh down her ankle.
“We didn’t know if she would be able to compete,” said Diving Canada technical director Mitch Geller. “You know what? She competes. She bit leather and they did a fantastic job.
Just over a year from the date of his injury, McKay’s ankle is still a problem. After finishing second at the national championships last month, McKay will not compete in the four-day FINA Grand Prix which ends in his hometown on Sunday.
The Calgary Grand Prix is a chance for Canadian and international divers to perfect their performance for the world championship from June 17 to July 3 in Budapest, Hungary.
McKay saves his ankle for the world championship.
“I definitely did a number on that at the Olympics. It didn’t heal in the right way,” she said. “It was my choice to overcome the pain and I knew the consequences. I knew it was going to be a tougher recovery. I knew it was going to last and I know I will probably never have a normal ankle.
“Right now we’re still starting to investigate more about why I have more pain, but it’s more of a chronic pain situation, more of a kind of tendonitis situation.”
McKay also navigated a post-Olympic sentiment among athletes: After achieving my life’s dream, why don’t I feel different when others treat me differently?
There is also a “what now?” feeling and wanting to quickly get back to the pool or gym to replace that feeling.
“I’ve been pretty open talking about post-Olympic depression,” McKay said. “I think it’s something athletes really need to talk about. This is the highest high you will have and you go home. You don’t feel as different as you thought you would feel as an Olympian.
“I was proud to have dived well with an ankle. I was proud to have finished fourth for so little. Of course, it’s heartbreaking, but I was very, very proud of myself.
“I came back and. . . (people) ask you how you did and either they’re really excited or they’re not. That’s all for a few months. That’s all you are identified with. For me, it was really hard. I don’t feel any different, but that’s the only important thing people talk about. I feel like I have the same value that I had before the Olympics.
McKay was helped in 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 to me before the Olympics because he went 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 have to go back to diving.’ I felt like I needed it because I always felt like I had something to prove since we were fourth.
“He was like ‘no you don’t’ because he made the mistake of going back to diving too soon after the Olympics and not taking the time to have a normal month where you go out to dinner, you see the family, you go on a trip.”
Their wedding is later this summer after the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, and a year and a day after their engagement.
McKay continues to do the mental training and diving visualization that can help compensate for times when his ankle limits his reps on the boards.
“I don’t do 100% of my training. I do 50% and the other 50% I try to do mentally,” she said. “It’s definitely a tool that I’ve learned to use more effectively and efficiently. I think it will be a useful tool for me.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 9, 2022.
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