When the closing ceremonies in Rio mark the end of another Summer Olympic Games on Sunday, they will also mark a turning point in the lives of many young Canadian athletes.
For every Andre De Grasse, Penny Oleksiak or Rosie MacLennan, who proudly graced a medal podium, dozens more will leave Brazil with dashed Olympic dreams and uncertain futures.
For many, a lifetime of training and sacrifice will cruelly culminate in heartbreaking fashion. And whether it was questionable judging, unfortunate circumstances or simply falling short against the world’s best under a glaring spotlight, the years to come can be tinged with regret.
But as former Canadian Olympic boxer Mark Simmons can attest, life goes on after Olympic flames are extinguished.
The Toronto-native has had 16 years to ruminate on his own Olympic disappointment.
After losing a final qualifying fight for the 1996 Atlanta Games, Simmons was determined to make Canada’s Olympic boxing team four years later, and he did so in dramatic fashion.
He secured his spot at the 2000 Sydney Games after winning three straight fights with a broken right hand at a last-chance tournament in Tijuana, Mexico.
“It tore my heart out (when I lost in ’96),” he says. “But I trained like hell, and I said to myself, ‘I’m never going to miss these Olympics again.’
“Over the next four years, nobody beat me in Canada. I won a Commonwealth Games gold medal, Pan Am Games silver medal, and my dream was to go to the Olympics.”
At the age of 26, Simmons, who began boxing when he was five, would make that dream come true.
“I had to win the next three fights with a broken right hand and I did it,” he recalls. “It was the most fantastic moment of my life to finally realize you are going to the Olympic Games.”
Once in Sydney, he won a hard-fought battle against a tough Iranian slugger. He then found himself in a “guaranteed medal” showdown against a German fighter most were certain he could handle.
“They considered me a medal hope for sure,” he says. “I win the next fight and I’m guaranteed a bronze medal. This is what I’ve dreamed of.”
He lost by a score of 16-1.
After more than 20 years of training and well over 200 amateur fights, it was all over in four, two-minute rounds. Eight foggy minutes he’s replayed in his head countless times, but never brought himself to watch again.
“I’ve never been able to go back and watch that fight because I don’t want to see myself,” he explains. “That wasn’t me.”
Looking back, Simmons recalls how an unfortunate set of circumstances sapped his energy going into the biggest fight of his life. But in the end, he says there’s no excuse. He just didn’t get the job done.
“I’m not gonna blame the judges or anything. I didn’t show up,” he says. “I didn’t even know what just happened. That was my big moment and I didn’t perform.
“I felt I let down my dad who took me to the gym since the age of five. To see his face and know he wanted me to win more than anything. That’s what killed me more than anything.”
When a reporter asked him what happened after he walked out of the ring in a daze, Simmons fell apart.
“I’ve never cried like that,” he says. “I’m crying on live TV. I had no explanation. And that was my Olympics.”
Life after the Olympics
Today, Simmons is happily married with two young children. He’s just purchased a home north of Toronto. In many ways, he believes his Olympic loss, although heartbreaking, was a blessing in disguise.
He was able to walk away from boxing with his health intact, avoiding the brain trauma that often plagues professional fighters. He went on to finish his Bachelor of Science at York University and accepted a position as a pharmaceutical rep for Pfizer in 2001. He’s been with the company ever since. He also works part-time as a personal trainer and referees professional boxing matches.
“If I had won, the pressure would have been there to turn pro,” he says. “But the reality is I’m glad I never took that route because pro is a tough, tough sport and you don’t come out the same that you go in. Maybe I would have made a few dollars, but if you can’t even count that money and can’t enjoy it, what’s the point?”
Simmons keenly watches the Olympics every four years, but admits the ritual can conjure difficult memories.
“When the opening ceremonies come, I have a hard time watching,” he says. “Because there’s a little bit of pain inside of me.
“I get so excited, and I’m so proud that I got to go to the Olympics, but deep inside of me there’s that disappointment and I’ve had to overcome that over the years.”
The still fit 42-year-old says he feels for homegrown athletes like boxer Mandy Bujold, who was ousted from medal contention in Rio after falling ill with a stomach bug that drained her strength in the ring.
“I know what Mandy is going through and I know what she will go through in the future,” he explains. “Mandy was a favourite, and things happen. She will always be proud that she’s an Olympian, but in the back of her mind she’ll wonder why. ‘Why did this have to happen to me?’”
“The reality is she was a champion just to step in that ring,” he adds. “You’re always an Olympian, but for her right now there is going to be disappointment, and it’s a tough time.
“I remember looking at that Olympic flame the next day after I’d lost and thinking my moment was gone. But life goes on and you learn from it.”
Simmons says Canadian athletes who don’t realize their dreams can have a hard time adjusting when they return home from the whirlwind of the Games.
“Before you go, you are everybody’s hero,” he says. “Everyone believes in you and everyone believes you’re going to win a medal. But only a few actually do. Coming back is hard. Before, the media is around — Everyone is writing articles, taking pictures. Everyone wants to talk to you. After that, it’s a little bit harder to refocus your dreams.”
Out of the spotlight, most athletes blend back into regular life. The special treatment ends.
But occasionally, Simmons has gently reminded someone about his past. With a chuckle, he recalls having a brief dust-up with an unruly patron at a Toronto bar.
“We had Olympic rings made and I was always so proud to wear my ring,” he says. “But most people didn’t recognize what it was unless you look closely. I was at the bar and a guy was pushing me and elbowing me, trying to get me to move out of the way. I said, ‘Listen, do you see that?’ And I put the ring in his face and said ‘I went to the Olympics for boxing.’ ”
The revelation quickly diffused the situation.
But his past life as an accomplished pugilist didn’t just serve to deter troublemakers.
“It opened up doors,” he notes. “I was asked to be in Cinderella Man with Russell Crowe. Three days later, I’m on a plane having dinner with Russell Crowe at his house. That’s only because I was an Olympian.
“The doors certainly open up in life.”
Turning a loss into a win
“I know things happen for a reason in life,” Simmons says. “The best decision of my life was not turning pro. By losing, I won.
“At the time it’s really painful to lose, but the reality is life goes on, and sport is not everything. Now, as a father I think there’s so much more. And you move on and you learn from your successes and your failures.”
Despite the wisdom garnered from his experiences, his competitive instincts still kick in from time to time, especially when the Olympics rolls around.
“I plop my kids in front of the TV and say to my wife, ‘They’re gonna be Olympians! What sport should we put them in?’
“My wife says you can’t live your dreams through your kids. But the other day I said to my son, who is three, ‘Do you know what sport daddy competed in, in the Olympics?’ And he said, ‘Boxing!’ It just melted my heart.
“He actually knows I competed in the Olympics. That’s what makes me feel good now. Just to know I’m his hero.”