Jennifer Abel’s most difficult moments last year unfolded in front of the world, at her sport’s ultimate competition.
Her pair of fourth-place finishes at last summer’s Olympic Games were covered nationally, told through the type of narrative often attached to the most excruciating place to finish in an Olympic final. Words such as “heartbreak” and “disappointment” were applied.
And in the year since Rio, competing in the dimmed light of a post-Olympic season, Abel has struggled to revive the mental focus so crucial to exploding off a diving board.
The Laval, Que., native is one of 11 Canadian divers, including three-time Olympic medallist Meaghan Benfeito, who will compete at the 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, where diving competition runs July 14-22 (CBCSports.ca will stream live action beginning Saturday, July 15).
The world championships are the 2017 version of the Olympics — the biggest meet of the year, highly competitive, and an opportunity to either repeat, or turn the page on, what happened last summer.
At Rio 2016, Abel and her teammate Pamela Ware finished fourth in the women’s synchronized three-metre springboard event, missing the bronze medal by less than a single point.
One week later, Abel was fourth in the individual 3m event — five points off the podium.
“Only those who live that will understand that it’s much harder than just having a bad competition,” Abel says of finishing fourth. “It’s painful.”
During the fallout, Abel decided to continue diving because she simply couldn’t accept finishing her career like that.
“I don’t feel like I’ve reached my full potential,” she says.
Many times this diving season, at international events far from home, Abel searched for motivation and found little consolation.
At the first two Diving World Series events (FINA’s major tour stops), the 25-year-old finished fourth in the individual springboard.
Coming to terms with missing a once-in-every-four-years chance (twice) while trying to measure up to flawless Chinese divers was demanding for Abel, and lonely.
“I have to be true to myself about my feelings about it because sometimes it’s hard to say the way that you feel,” she says.
“It’s hard to turn the page when everybody keeps talking about [the Olympics].”
It was difficult for Abel to articulate because few people can relate to the feeling of being fourth at the Olympics. At the same time, she’s still a young person, learning about the realities of life through the rare experience of world-class sport.
At the third Diving World Series stop, in early spring in Russia, Abel finally cracked the individual springboard podium, earning a bronze medal.
“I almost cried when I was on the podium because I saw the two Chinese flags and the Canadian flag,” Abel said afterwards. “I was just thinking about the Olympics, like I was so close to being with those flags.”
Catching a break
Of course, Ware, Abel’s partner in the synchro event last year, also suffered the disappointment of finishing fourth in Rio.
The Greenfield Park, Que., diver’s path to Budapest took a dramatic turn when she stepped off a massage table in October of last year and found she couldn’t walk.
A nagging stress fracture in her left foot had suddenly turned serious.
“It was just so random,” says the 24-year-old.
She had surgery in late December and only began training her competition dives again in March of this year, missing most of the competitive season.
Though the injury forced Abel to find another synchro teammate for the season, the extended post-Olympic break actually worked in Ware’s favour from an individual perspective.
“When I came back after surgery it was really easy to get back into diving,” says Ware. “I was able to clear my head, I was in great physical shape, so I think that was really good for me.”
Ware changed her hurdle — a diver’s approach to the end of the board — in an attempt to make it more consistent. So far, it seems to have worked. She won the gold medal at a Diving Grand Prix in Madrid, Spain in May.
The 2013 worlds medallist will have to step it up once again on July 20, when the women’s 3m springboard event begins in Budapest and she faces Abel and the rest of the world’s best.
Abel will also compete in the 3m synchro with Mélissa Citrini-Beaulieu, who replaced Ware after her injury.
While Abel and Ware are no longer teammates (at least for the moment), they continue to share a common goal — avoiding another fourth-place finish.