Olympic medalist and friend of the Children’s Aid Foundation, Elizabeth Manley understands a thing or two about pressure. A competitor at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, she figure skated her way into history by winning a silver medal; a feat made even more incredible when coupled with an ongoing battle with depression – a struggle that, for Elizabeth, began years earlier.
“I was just 16 years old and I was aiming for my first Olympic Games, which was Sarajevo in 1984,” she explains. After her parents separated, her father (a military man) was transferred to Europe, and her mother began working long hours to help pay for Elizabeth’s skating and coaching. With the loss of a paternal figure in her life, Elizabeth’s coach stepped-in to fill that role.
“This coach would literally pick me up at 5:30 in the morning and drop me off at 10:30 at night,” she says. “He would take me to the rink, he would take me to school, he would take me to my work-outs, and then back to the rink.” And then, despite all of the hours they’d spent working together, he suddenly told Elizabeth he could no longer coach her – just shy of qualifying for the 1984 Sarajevo games. “It was devastating to me, I didn’t know how to handle it, and I didn’t understand why he was leaving me,” she says – a mystery that she now knows was due to her coach being diagnosed with AIDS. Without any other coaches in Ottawa available to train her at an Olympic-level, Elizabeth had to make the tough decision to quit skating.
“In about a 48-hour period I felt like all my dreams had been taken away from me,” she says.
But that all changed when she got a call from a training centre in Lake Placid offering her a sponsorship that would cover her skating and coaching expenses. Elizabeth jumped at the chance.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends at the rink because I was the strange kid that came in from Canada that could skate better than them,” she says, explaining that although her new coach was very skilled, he spoke little English. “In a matter of literally four or five months in Lake Placid I just shut down. I was afraid to speak, I was afraid to open myself up. I was in a position where I didn’t tell people how I was feeling, and within that period I started to lose all my hair and gained about 30 lbs in water retention. And that was when the decision was made to send me back to Ottawa and I was diagnosed as being clinically depressed and having a nervous breakdown.”
It took several visits to doctors and therapists until Elizabeth started to feel better and returned to skating. “I re-evaluated my life and began loving myself again,” she explains. “I decided to come back to skating just because I loved to skate, and in turn found myself competing again.”
And the timing couldn’t have been better, as Elizabeth continued to train, this time ending-up on the podium at the 1988 Olympics. “I’m so proud I won a silver medal at the Olympics but in my family and everything that we went through with depression – I won gold that night. That medal to the Manley family is gold; I achieved, I was resilient. I came through what many teens suffer through today and don’t believe they can get through. It was a gold medal in life.” This experience is what encourages Elizabeth to be a champion not only for mental health but also for providing access to sports for kids of all financial circumstances.
“I truly believe that sports or music or any kind of activity that a child can get involved in – it’s theirs, it’s their moment, it’s their place,” she says.
She also cites skating as the force that helped her heal and recover from depression. “Sports healed me. It brought a passion to me and in my life that was for me, that I could pursuit – [something] that no one else could do for me.”
Now an advocate for a breadth of causes, Elizabeth still skates in fundraising ice shows and offers athletic support, including in broadcasting, when the Olympics come around. Like many, she will be an eager supporter of our Canadian athletes in the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics. Although, for her, it hits a little closer to home.
To find out more about how you can help vulnerable kids play sports, please visit: http://www.cafdn.org/take-notice/programs-we-fund/