Young divers in Montreal say Jennifer Abel will continue to be an inspiration for them and in the sport, even after the Olympian retires from the sport.
Abel announced her retirement from competitive diving on Tuesday, just a few months after winning silver in synchronized springboard alongside Melissa Citrini-Beaulieu at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
She won bronze in the same event in London in 2012, and holds ten world championship medals in the sport, the most by any Canadian diver.
“When I watch her dive, I’m really just in awe,” said 16-year-old Sonya Palkhivaln, who dives in Pointe-Claire.
Palkhivaln said it was inspiring to know that Abel went to the Olympics when she was her age.
“We’re really proud of her,” said Palkhivaln. “Even though she’s not diving anymore she still leaves a huge legacy here in Pointe-Claire and in Canada.”
“Seeing her perform so consistently at such a high level has just been incredible to watch,” agreed Ella Hamby, who also dives in Pointe-Claire.
She said young divers like her watch athletes like Abel closely, not only for form but for inspiration. Hamby said that, like Abel, she too hopes to make it to the Olympics.
“It kind of fills you with a little bit of nervousness, thinking of where I am now and how I would get there,” she said. “But I’d love to go.”
Abel broke the news by sharing a letter she wrote to her younger self, titled To the young mixed-race girl who wanted to dive. In it, she remembers a time when few divers looked like her.
“It wasn’t easy for me when I was younger because I couldn’t see a model, I couldn’t look at someone and see myself through that person… because they weren’t physically looking the same [as me],” Abel told CBC.
“Maybe it’s because, like you, they were told that Black girls belong in athletics or basketball, not in the pool,” she wrote in the letter.
Colleagues praise Abel as mentor, idol
The 30-year-old diver from Laval said she was heartened by the “love and so much great messages” she’s received since announcing her retirement.
“You never think that you’re an inspiration,” said Abel.
“I’m happy that people can connect with me and see that anything is possible like that when you work hard, and I can give a [legacy] like that to the youth.”
David Bédard, the assistant head coach of the Pointe-Claire diving club says Abel was more than just a model athlete.
“[She did] what we hope to do with every young child that comes through here — whether they perform at the Olympics or not,” he said, “to become that kind of person who is humble but at the same time successful.”
He said Abel came to the club before she left to compete in Tokyo, answering questions and offering advice for the younger athletes.
“We’ve had a long history of Olympians, and I think that having us around for them makes it a bit more tangible, something [young divers] can really see being a possibility,” Bédard said. “I think that’s what makes it so attainable.”
That’s how it was for synchronized swimmer Jacqueline Simoneau. The two-time Olympian said Abel was a “huge inspiration” in her career.
“I remember growing up by the pool, watching her dive and train for the London Olympics and she was one of my idols growing up,” Simoneau said.
She said it was incredible to be able to chase those dreams and ultimately compete alongside Abel at the Olympic Games.
But she said Abel’s legacy extends far beyond the diving pool.
“I think that Jen has had a tremendous impact, not only in the diving world but in the sporting community, showing people that there are no boundaries and that you can reach any goal you can set your mind to,” she said.
“She’s definitely left a mark on the athletic community.”
Abel ‘ready to see what life has to offer’
Abel said she’s ready to see what a life outside of diving could look like — and focus on raising a family.
At the same time she announced her retirement, Abel also shared the news she’s expecting a baby with her fiancé, boxer David Lemieux.
Lemieux proposed last summer, after a whirlwind couple of days that saw Abel compete in Tokyo, win silver and then fly immediately home to Montreal. Lemieux proposed at the airport, minutes after Abel stepped off the plane.
Jennifer Abel gets a shiny silver medal in Tokyo, then lands at the airport on her way home and gets a shiny rock 💍❤️<a href=”https://twitter.com/JennAbel91?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@jennabel91</a> <a href=”https://t.co/dMFpfQbH9T”>pic.twitter.com/dMFpfQbH9T</a>
“I’ve seen a lot in diving and now I’m ready to see what life has to offer me out of the diving pool,” she said.
Even though she’s retiring from diving, Abel says she’ll soon be a certified pilates teacher, something she hopes will allow her to stay in touch with former teammates and other athletes.
First, she said she plans to spend next year focusing on her new child.