Manley finding her true calling

Elizabeth Manley is a little engine that could. Her history reads like that and so does her future. Despite pestilence and famine, Manley chugs on, one blade in front of the other.

Evidence: during rehearsals for her Elizabeth Manley & Friends ice show in Peterborough on April 5, Manley broke her back in three places, when she fell from a lift. Her friends saved her from hitting her head on the ice. But she had an inkling, as soon as she hit the ice, that she had done some damage.

The Peterborough Petes’ trainer happened to be at the rink and began to treat her. Miraculously, she skated in the show. Later she found she had indeed fractured her lower No. 1, 2 and 3 lumbar vertebrae.

“It was the weirdest situation because when you’re falling and looking up at the ceiling, you don’t know you’re falling,” she said, remembering that she was held up by two skaters, fully laid out, with her face upwards.  “I didn’t know I was falling. It happened so fast. But I’m okay.” She had to pull out of a Kitchener-Waterloo 75th anniversary show that followed, the first time in 40 years that she’s had to bow out from a performance.

Manley’s number in her show was to Glass Tiger’s Alan Frew singing live. “Artists take it seriously when the show has to go on, it has to go on,” he said to the crowd. “Liz just had a serious accident during rehearsal, but she’s going to do her best.”

Manley went out and did not jump or spin. She did a corkscrew spin, but it wasn’t easy, because the pain was in her left side and she couldn’t do anything to the left. Doing crosscuts to the left hurt, too. Manley manipulated her body through the routine and didn’t go to the hospital. “You know me,” she said. “It’s my show. I’ve just got to keep going.”

When she returned home to Ottawa, she had Dr. Don Chow, team physician for the Ottawa Senators, examine her. Doctors put her in a protective brace for 10 weeks. It looked a little bit like a strait jacket, she said. “It’s not the prettiest looking thing,” she said. It had 15 velcro straps to keep it on. But she avoided surgery.

The show wasn’t just a show to Manley. Aside from being an attempt to create work for skaters, (“Skating is really tough out there right now,” she said), the show was her chance to give back, to help others “It’s my time to be able to make a difference,” she said. The show was in aid of community living in Peterborough, to raise money to help the intellectually challenged live in homes, and with some support, learn how to live on their own, how to cook, how to find a job. She fell in love with the charity.

Manley’s current work tends to centre around mental health and depression issues, conditions that afflicted her when she was a competitor. “I’m a firm believer that everything happens in your life for a reason,” Manley said. “My mom really made me a strong believer in that. I feel everything I went through with depression, my place is to give and to help. I tried to expose it with my book after the Olympics, and people didn’t really want to hear about it. I find my calling now is exactly what I’m doing right now.”

Even 26 years after winning her Olympic silver medal, Manley is busy on the talk circuit still. She’s talked at about 40 schools in the past season, and probably 20 to 30 other events. She’s spoken at a military families’ organization in Cornwall, and she’ll probably speak to a similar group in Alberta next year. She’s done some talks with the Coaching Association of Canada and Skate Canada, too. While still wearing her uncomfortable support brace, she spoke to 1,200 students at a college at Belleville, Ont. during the spring.

The topic has become much more open since Manley was dealing with dozens of issues as a teenager: the separation of her parents, being sent to Lake Placid to train and feeling very alone, losing her coach Bob McAvoy to illness, feeling like she couldn’t cut it. The stress caused her hair to fall out and she grittily competed at the 1983 Canadian championships in Montreal, not looking her best in a sport that treasures beauty.

“I’ll never forget it in 1983, when people saw me coming down the hallway of the arena, they just dispersed into other rooms,” Manley said. “They didn’t want to understand. They didn’t want to know. They didn’t get it. They were scared of it.

“It was hard, because I felt like nobody loved me and that is really tough on a teen and that’s what teens are going through today. They don’t feel loved for who they are. That’s how I was feeling. If I hadn’t embraced the help that was given to me, who is to say where I would have ended up?”

Athletes are always trained not to express their feelings, because if you do, you’re considered weak, Manley said. Figure skaters must always make the difficult look easy, to hide the sweat behind the smile. So Manley kept everything inside. That’s when her body physically broke down and said: “Stop.”

But with Olympic cyclist/speedskater Clara Hughes going public with her depressive issues and rower Silken Laumann speaking of her troubled youth, too, the tide has changed about mental illness. And it wasn’t until Manley started talking about her issues that she realized that it wasn’t just skating that caused it. Now, young people are her target, and she stresses to them to reach out for help, that they are not alone, that they can change their lives.

Sometimes, when Manley speaks at high schools, she’s seen teens begin to cry. It scared her, at first, because she feared she had scared or upset them. But then after the chats, the kids come up and ask to speak to her alone. “They literally say to me: ‘Thank you. Thank you.’” Manley said. “They say they are going through something themselves and I’ve made them realize they can get help and that they can change. And that’s what is so great.”

She’ll get emails from people telling her that her words are inspiring and heart wrenching at the same time. Manley jokes that she does it for therapy. “It’s very therapeutic for me to be able to express and tell what happened.”

It’s not as if Manley has found a straight path to a cure from her youthful depressions. She’s not always happy. Nobody is. When her mother, Joan, died five years ago, Manley hit rock bottom again. “Completely,” she said. She’s not afraid to tell people that she’s in therapy again, having had to deal with a lot of changes in her life. She’s lost her father, her mother, her dog, feeling a little lost sometimes.

“Honestly, when things get hard as an adult, doing these talks and speaking to people really brings me back to smarten up,” she said. She tells herself that if she could pull herself out from the bottom of her boots then, she can do it now.

People in society generally are under too much pressure, Manley said. Pressures to do well. Pressures to pay the bills. Pressures to have a life. Part of her talks to women include not being afraid of change or of starting over again. Manley seems to do it every 20 years: first the skater, then the professional, then the grownup, finding her way to the next step.

“With everything I’ve been through, I think my place now is to give and to help,” she said. “And that’s really what my motivation is right now. To help, especially our youth. I see so much going on with our youth right now.”

So once again, Manley is winning, always seeming to show up with a sunny, bubbly disposition, buoyed by her experience of how to cope with life’s bobbles.

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