The Olympian Who Gave Up Gold to Save a Life
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
In the race for gold versus glory, glory wins every time.
By Ryan Wallerson
Faring well in the fifth of his series-of-seven Olympic races, medal-contender Lawrence Lemieux made his way through churning seas and 35-knot winds off the coast of Seoul, South Korea. As he passed the southernmost marker to head north, a capsized vessel came into view … with only one of its two-member crew in sight.
In the heat of competition, the will to win often takes priority, especially in the Olympics, with both individual and national glory at stake. But back in 1988, Lemieux set aside his dreams of Olympic gold to do something even more important: the right thing.
It was supposed to be the Canadian sailor’s year. After making the national team as the fifth-ranked sailor in the world in 1978, Lemieux had worked his way up to third in 1980, when Canada, along with many other nations, boycotted the Moscow Games because the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. In Los Angeles four years later, Lemieux fell behind countryman Terry Neilson in the Finn class qualifications, so he switched to the Star class to compete. But in 1988, the 32-year-old Lemieux was finally representing Canada in his preferred Finn class, and doing well.
It was clear the boat was drifting faster than the man could swim, and Lemieux feared he would be lost at sea.
On the morning of September 24, multiple races were sailing, including the Olympic Finn class competition, with participants spread out over a 2-mile circle. Having done well in the first four races, Lemieux was in contention to medal and spent the early stages of the fifth race in first place.
The crest of each wave hid the nearly 8-foot-tall markers, and Lemieux lost sight of one, enabling a competitor to get inside and take the lead. But at the halfway point, Lemieux was on pace to finish second, which would still have put him in medal position.
When the flipped vessel came into view about 100 yards south of him, Lemieux could see a man sitting on the overturned boat. “The man I would later learn to be the skipper [Singaporean Shaw Her Siew] was … holding on to the centerboard,” Lemieux says. He couldn’t have known that the beleaguered boat’s rudder had been detached, making it impossible to right the vessel, but he could see that Siew was missing a crew member and was floating near the edge of where a rescue team would search.
Yelling to Siew proved no match for the wind or distance. Then Lemieux spotted the second crew member in the water ahead of him, doggedly chasing his ship despite being weighed down by his gear. It was clear that the boat was drifting faster than the man could swim, and Lemieux feared he would be lost at sea — a prospect that forced him to stop and lend a hand.
Lemieux dropped out of the race and rescued an exhausted Joseph Chan, who had sustained a back injury but was otherwise unharmed — taking him aboard his single-person craft in high seas, which carried its own risks. “Once I got him into the boat, I was concerned that we were going to capsize ourselves,” Lemieux says.
When Lemieux reached the capsized boat, he learned about the missing rudder and saw that Siew had sliced open his hand. He then set off to find the rudder so the Singaporeans could right their boat. It took him less than 15 minutes, but by then many of the Finn class competitors had raced past. Lemieux’s coach, meanwhile, had come looking for him, fearing the worst. Arriving just as Lemieux returned with the rudder, his coach took over the rescue effort, enabling Lemieux to finish the normally two-hour race.
The rough weather had separated the fleet, Lemieux says, which helped him finish 22nd out of a field of at least 35. But “in good racing conditions, the 10 or 15 minutes I took away from the competition would’ve left me dead last,” he says. With two more races to go, Lemieux wasn’t completely out of the running, but rough conditions during the sixth and seventh races prevented him from closing the gap.
Lemieux has no regrets, other than having allowed the media attention to affect his focus. “All the press, newspaper, TV cameras and everyone wanting to hear the story really caught me off guard,” he says.
Though he failed to medal in 1988, the Edmonton native won himself perhaps an even more prestigious award: the International Olympic Committee’s Pierre de Coubertin Medal for true sportsmanship — an honor that’s been bestowed upon fewer than 20 competitors. “By your sportsmanship, self-sacrifice and courage, you embody all that is right with the Olympic ideal,” IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch told Lemieux when presenting him with the award.
- Ryan Wallerson, OZY Author Contact Ryan Wallerson