Emilie Heymans could earn a special place in the annals of the Olympic Games this summer in London.
A podium finish in one of her two events would make her the first diver in history to win a medal at four consecutive Olympics.
Her record is already impressive: she has won at least one medal in each of the major multi-sport games —Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan American — since her arrival on the international scene in 1999. In addition to her 15 medals, she won the 2003 world championship in the 10-metre tower and was runner-up in the three-metre springboard at the worlds in 2009.
But don’t count on Heymans to boast about her success — she’s not the type to dwell on her list of accomplishments. Leave that to her biggest fan, her father Eric Heymans.
“My father is very involved in my career,” says the 30-year-old diver. “He manages my sponsorship and media requests. I consult him often and he’s the person whose opinion matters most to me.”
In fact, Heymans has always relied on the support of both her parents throughout her career. Both were elite athletes in their own time.
Eric Heymans played soccer in Belgium, his home country, and her mother, Marie-Paule Van Eyck, competed in Montreal’s 1976 Olympics as a member of the Belgian fencing team.
“We have always considered it a privilege to support her career,” said her father, adding that he adopted the approach of supporting her through “non-interference, but not indifference.”
“We are in the background, but never far away if she needs us,” added her mother.
Eric Heymans does, however, look after all the honours bestowed on his daughter.
“I keep all her medals in a box at home,” he said. “Emilie doesn’t attach much importance for the moment, and says ‘Why would I look at them? I know I’ve won.’ Personally, I kept no souvenirs from my time playing soccer and regret it a bit.”
The support and guidance of her parents has proved invaluable when she has struggled.
After a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2005 world championships in Montreal, her coach at the time, Michel Larouche, was very critical. The incident led to a rift in their relationship.
Looking back, Heymans says that time was one if the most difficult in her career.
“This decision to change coaches in 2005 was very, very hard to take,” she says. “But I had no choice if I wanted to continue to compete and develop myself as a person and as a diver. ”
Eric Heymans vividly remembers that episode and, in the spirit of non-indifference, didn’t hesitate to offer guidance to his daughter.
“I saw her so unhappy, so devastated, that we couldn’t sit idly by,” he said. “At that time, she didn’t have all the tools to make a decision alone.”
Her decision to leave Larouche and join a diving club in the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire, under the tutelage of coach Yihua Li, has turned out to be a good one. Yihua Li’s approach has allowed Heymans to regain confidence in herself and grow as both a diver and as person.
By nature a reserved person, Heymans has often been in the shadow of another great Quebec diver, the charismatic Alexandre Despatie. Today, though, she’s more comfortable with her public profile. She projects the image of a confident woman.
Her perseverance has been a big part of her success.
“I do not necessarily have an innate talent. But I am very determined and that’s what explains my success as a diver,” says Heymans, who confesses that, as a child, she dreamt of competing in the Olympics as a gymnast.
Her mother agrees.
“She has the ability to quickly forget poor performances and get back to work quickly,” she says. “And when she has a goal in mind, she does everything she can to achieve it. ”
Following her silver medal in the 10-metre tower at the Beijing Games, Heymans chose to focus full-time on the three-metre springboard. It was a bold gamble.
Even though she had early success with a silver medal at the 2009 world championships, the change hasn’t been easy overall.
“It was a little harder than I had envisioned,” she says. “It all started very well with my silver medal at the worlds but, afterwards, I had more difficulty. I was slowed by hip and knee injuries. I hadn’t been bothered by injuries like this for years.”
Though she may not be a favourite in the three-metre springboard due to a lack of consistency over the past year, a podium finish in synchronized diving is within reach with her young and talented partner Jennifer Abel.
But no matter what happens in London, Heymans has already realized her dream.
“My childhood dream was just to go to the Olympics,” says Heymans. “It remained a dream and I didn’t think I could achieve it. So to have taken part four times, it’s really extraordinary. ”
After the London Games, Heymans plans to retire from diving to begin another career she believes will be just as exciting. With a degree in fashion marketing, she’s working on developing her own line of swimwear. The four planned styles will be a nod to her diving career — she wants to call them Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London.