Each time Elaine Tanner signs one of her books for someone, she has the opportunity to share the message that is so much a part of who she is and all she has learned: the importance of being kind and loving unconditionally.
At her home in Niagara-on-the-Lake one morning last week, Tanner, the swimmer who won two silver medals and one bronze in the 1968 summer Olympics, had visitors lined up, wearing masks and physical distancing, on the sidewalk outside her home. They were waiting for copies of the book she wrote and self-published in 2015. A couple from Niagara Falls, a woman from Welland, and two others from NOTL arrived, one after another, each coming for autographed copies of the Monkey Guy and The Cosmic Fairy, to give to their children or grandchildren for Christmas.
Usually, around this time of year, she says, she would be doing book-signing events in time for Christmas. “I can’t do that now, during a pandemic.”
It’s quickly evident that Tanner, gracious, warm and welcoming, loves to meet people, taking the opportunity to chat with each one about her message, which can resonate with readers of all ages.
“I wrote it not just for children, but for all of you, parents and grandparents who will read it to their children,” she tells them.
Tanner, 69, and her husband John Watt divide their time between their Prideaux Street “cottage,” as she describes their small, quaint home just steps away from King Street, and a house in B.C., where she grew up, and where her children and grandchildren still live. Watt is from The Beaches area of Toronto, and has family in Ontario. After visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake, they decided to make it their part-time home, Tanner explains.
They spend their winter in the Old Town, when the streets are quiet. They enjoy the sunshine even on wintery days, which Watt prefers to the grey, rainy days of B.C. Summers are spent on the west coast, with her family close by.
While she sells some books, which help pay for the cost of distribution — she’s spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on shipping donated books, she says — about 90 per cent are given away, to schools, including Crossroads Public School, to the Niagara Emergency Medical Services, the NOTL Fire and Emergency Services, the Niagara Children’s Centre, and to local hospitals. The same is true for similar locations across the country — anywhere they might be enjoyed not only by children, but people of all ages who may benefit from her message of love, friendship and positivity.
“This is really an enterprise of love,” she says. “Sometimes you can’t put a monetary value on kindness.”
Tanner says she has learned many lessons on her journey through life, and wanted to leave a legacy for her three grandchildren, Graysen, Alex and Mason.
Monkey Guy is named after a stuffed monkey given to her by Watt, about a decade ago, she says.
They were in Dundas, Ont., and had stopped at a country market, where she admired the monkey. It was around this time of year, and he insisted on buying it for her.
In the story, Monkey Guy is a toy created by Santa’s elves, and sprinkled liberally with magic stardust. He became a special Christmas gift for Lewis, who needed a friend.
The time came when Monkey called on the Cosmic Fairy to help him fulfill a wish for Lewis, and what ensues is an emotional story of love and kindness.
“It has real meaning to it,” Tanner says, “ and is intended to engage the adults who will read it to their kids.”
Although Tanner enjoyed a successful career as a swimmer, it came with its struggles and challenges, she says, once those days were behind her.
“I was left a hollow shell. Swimming was my identity, and as athletes, we’re left with a need to figure out who we are. We have to find our identity, and our purpose in life. Humans are very complex people, and what we achieve or do doesn’t define us.”
As she came to that realization, she says, she evolved and grew, and has written about her personal journey candidly, to help and inspire others, on three websites, elainetanner.ca; questbeyondgold.ca; and teamunderdogca.
“I don’t regret anything that happened to me, because I wouldn’t be the person I am today if those things hadn’t happened to me. There is a reason behind every struggle.”
Long before COVID came along, Tanner says, “I learned to prioritize the important and valuable things in life, simple joys such as the love you have for family, friend and nature, and finding happiness in those simple things, by being mindful, being present and being grateful.”
She’s hoping that through COVID, “we’ll learn to stop, take a moment to pause and prioritize, to re-evaluate what’s important in life, such as communicating with friends, with family, and being kind, patient and tolerant.
The pandemic, she says, seems to bring out either the best or the worst in people.
“We all react differently when we’re under stress, and we show our anxiety in different ways.”
The message in her book, she says, is timeless, and more meaningful now than ever, when it’s so important to remember to act with kindness.
If each of us could do that, she adds, “the world would be a much better place.”
In addition to her Olympic medals, Tanner has been awarded the Order of Canada; she is a five-time world record-holder in swimming; has been voted one of Canada’s all-time 50 greatest athletes; and has been inducted into seven sports halls of fame.
Tanner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.