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Plush monkey inspires Olympic swimmer to write children's book

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North Saanich, B.C. -

Before we can appreciate the important role a plush toy named Monkey Guy has played in Elaine Tanner’s life, we need go back to when people started calling her Mighty Mouse.

“‘Way to go Mighty Mouse!’” She recalls being cheered poolside. “Because I looked so small, but I was mighty!”

Mighty good at swimming, since she was a child.

“I was driven though,” Elaine says. “I was really, really driven.”

Drive and talent turned her teenage self into a trailblazer. At 15, Elaine was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy for being Canada’s top athlete, after becoming the first person to win seven medals in a single Commonwealth Games. Then at 16, she wowed the crowd at the Pan Am games, winning five medals.

Archival footage shows the spectators rising to their feet in applause while the broadcaster exclaims: “A new world record for the Mighty Mouse!”

“All of a sudden, you’re on the world stage,” Elaine recalls with a smile. “And you went, 'Wow! I got here!'”

Looking back on pictures from her past, Elaine fondly remembers being praised by prime ministers (including Pierre Trudeau) and hockey stars (including Gordie Howe), before being honoured as an officer of the Order of Canada.

What she can’t recall is becoming the first Canadian woman to earn a place on the Olympic podium for swimming.

“I was actually in post-trauma at that time and didn’t know it,” she says, pointing to a picture of her beaming with medals around her neck. “I don’t remember anything.”

Although Elaine took home a bronze and two silvers, the most medals of any Canadian that year, the 17-year-old was devastated by headlines that read “Tanner Loses Gold.”

“It was really scary,” Elaine says.

She felt like a failure who let her country down.

“I came back [to Canada] as the same person outside, but on the inside I’d crumbled.”

After a lifetime of being defined by her accomplishments, Elaine says she lost her sense of self and “fell into a black hole.” The following decades featured divorce, homelessness, and life-threatening mental health issues.

“You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I need help. I am not ok,’” Elaine says of her rock bottom. “That’s your first step.”

Which brings us back to Monkey Guy.

Elaine says she slowly started turning her life around alongside her now-husband John Watt — who gave her the plush toy. It’s become reminder of how the darkest moments of your life can provide the greatest gifts.

“Don’t give up,” Elaine says. “There’s a purpose for everything in your life, even if you don’t realize it at the time.”

It’s a perspective Elaine has shared with the public on her website https://elainetanner.ca/ and with her grandchildren, through a book she spent two years writing for them, called “Monkey Guy and The Cosmic Fairy.” https://www.banyen.com/item/zjwz7dZclml0hDv3gHZk0Q

“Whatever you’re pursuing is only a chapter in your life. You are more than that,” Elaine says. “What we do in our life is not about acquiring things, it’s about giving.”

Which is why Elaine is now donating her book to children’s hospitals, community groups, and strangers she meets in coffee shops.

“My quest is far beyond gold,” Elaine smiles. “It’s not the gold medal that hangs around your neck, it’s the gold you learn from the lessons you have in your life.” 

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