"I've had to revamp myself every 20 years."
This is how my interview with Olympic Silver Medallist, and friend, Elizabeth Manley started. Just when I thought I knew her and thought I could predict her answers to my questions, she hits me with this revelation.
"Women are so afraid of starting over, and I found myself starting over again at 40, "Liz reveals. "My message to women is this: where do you want to be in 20 years? Once you know, remember that it can take 6-7 years to build momentum; it won't happen overnight. Don't give up and don't get discouraged." Liz adds. "Women get curveballs thrown at them all the time; you have to adapt."
Women are so afraid to start over. I found myself starting over again at 40
"For 20 years I was an amateur figure skater who trained daily and prepared for the world stage. I was very protected, I had an entourage of people helping me realize my dream. Then I won the Silver Medal in Calgary and I spent the next 20 years in the entertainment industry doing skating shows, televisions shows, writing a book and working as a professional figure skater. It was very different from my first 20 years; I was out there all on my own navigating a very difficult industry with people who don't often have your well being in mind." Liz explains.
Through my own sadness I developed something good; something to give back to my community
"Then in my 40's my mom died, my father died, and because I came home to Canada to be with my mom while she battled cancer for two years, I found myself out of touch with the world. I was 42 years old, all alone and was no longer a full time professional figure skater. What was I going to do? Who was I at this point in my life?" Liz reveals. "I had to start from scratch."
If you thought being Canada's Sweetheart meant lifetime of accolades, Liz realized that being relevant is fickle. More importantly, she was less interested in focusing on Elizabeth Manley and more interested in helping others. "It isn't about me anymore," she explains. "I look back on my life experiences and I know I can help others going through depression and mental health issues. I have battled depression; in fact I had a very public breakdown in my teens." She adds, "it wasn't okay to talk about it in 1983, but I want people to know it is okay to talk about now. That's why it is important for me to not only speak about my experience but to also raise awareness," Liz acknowledges.
I never knew where I got my strength from until I saw my mom battle cancer
Liz started Elizabeth Manley and Friends in 2012 and is her current full time job. "Elizabeth Manley and Friends is my passion," she confides. "It allows me to take my love of skating, create a full time career organizing events & speaking engagements, and allows me to give back to the Ottawa community," she adds. "I grew up in Ottawa; giving back is very important."
The 2013 Elizabeth Manley and Friends event brought world class figure skaters to Ottawa and raised money for mental health. "I had some of Jamie Hubley's friends skate in our event in January," Liz reveals proudly. "It was absolutely necessary for me to include youth in the show and honour those people who have, and are, battling with mental health."
For anyone who has never met Elizabeth, or Liz as everyone calls her, she is vivacious, bubbly and exudes energy, positivity and immediate approachability. She is instantly likeable and will put a smile on your face within moments of meeting her. Even when she speaks about difficult topics like the death of her mom, her battle with depression and the tough world of competitive figure skating she is upbeat and authentic.
In 1982 I was diagnosed as being clinically depressed
Being Canada's Sweetheart in the '80s didn't prevent Liz from experiencing isolation and depression. "I went through a very public depression in 1982," she explains. "My coach left me (ed note: he was dying of HIV Aids but didn't reveal that to Liz), I was living alone in Lake Placid training with unfamiliar coaches and skaters. I felt alone. It became too much for me. I gained weight, I lost my hair, I wasn't coping well. But I told everyone back home I'm fine which clearly wasn't true," she acknowledges.
She was diagnosed as clinically depressed.
A short time later Elizabeth found herself competing at the 1983 Canadian Championships. The media and public were all fully away of her depression struggles, and it became a topic of interest at the competition. "I was standing in the waiting area moments before it was my turn to go on the ice to compete," she reveals. "One of female skaters came up to me and said Hey Liz, do you want to borrow my hairspray'? I didn't have any hair. And then I had to step onto the ice and compete," Liz confides.
I loved to skate. I started at 2-1/2 years old and was landing triples at 10
In fact, the skating world essentially turned its back on Liz. Everyone of course, except her mom Joan. And anyone who knows Liz knows that her and her mom were two peas in a pod. They were in every sense each other's best friends. Yet, even with her mom's support it was at this moment in 1983 that Elizabeth quit skating. She. Was. Done.
But, this wouldn't be a true story of triumph without a remarkable twist of fate.
Along came a husband and wife coaching team by the name of Peter and Sonya Dunfield. They drove to Ottawa from NYC one day in 1983 only to arrive at the rink to find out Liz wasn't there. And worse, she had quit skating. But, she was convinced to come to the rink to meet them. "I arrive at the rink," laughs Liz, "and I said to Peter hi, I'm Elizabeth Manley. I'm fat, I have no hair and I just quit skating. What could you possibly want with me'"? He looked at me, laughed and said I knew I was going to love you", Liz announces. "They told me they just wanted me to love skating again."
That meeting changed the course of Liz's career, and life, forever. She trained with the Dunfields out of the Gloucester Skating Club in Ottawa and within 6 months Liz was wearing the Team Canada uniform and was headed to the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. With the addition of Peter and Sonya, prominent Sports Psychologist Terry Orlick also wanted to work with Elizabeth. "I had a team of people who believed in me, supported me and wanted to help me," she enthuses. "It was the turning point in my skating career. It was all I needed."
I admired Scott Hamilton; I wanted to be the female Scott Hamilton
And the rest is history. Liz arrived in Calgary in 1988 more prepared physically and mentally for the Olympics than for any other previous competition, yet found herself unwell. "I was sick as a dog," confides Liz. "We talked about pulling out of the competition twelve hours before the long program. I had a 105 degree fever and couldn't take anything because of drug testing." She adds, "my only thought was that I just wanted to get through my program."
And get through it she did with the skate of her life. Liz won the long program that night and missed the gold medal by one tenth of a point. And what were those famous words she said at the end of her program? "Yes," she laughs. "I said mom. My mom always told me things happen for reason; she had been saying that my whole life. And at that moment I realized it had happened for me."
If you believe it, it can happen. Don't worry about conditions you can't control
Remarkably Liz has no recollection of her performance. "I can't tell you anything about it. My first memory is sitting with Peter waiting for my marks. I actually had to ask him did I do it? because I couldn't recall what had just happened." In fact, this is common for elite athletes, as Terry later explained to Liz. It's called the Ultimate Performance Zone. And she was in it.
She did meet wonderful people through the sport. "Scott Hamilton was a big influence in my skating career. I wanted to be the female Scott Hamilton," Liz laughs. "Not only did he battle polio, but I admired his character and versatility," she adds. "He was always kind to me as a commentator and I was lucky to tour with him after the Olympics."
Don't walk away until you have given it your best shot. And then, if it's meant to be, it will be.
Don't walk away until you have given it your best shot
What is her message for women? "If you believe it, it can happen," she confides. "What I learned from figure skating, and competition, was to never give up. Once you start something, you finish it," Liz adds. "Essentially, don't walk away until you have given it your best shot. And then, if it's meant to be, it will be."
Good advice from a woman in the midst of redefining herself, again, and loving it.
1. I love to golf
2. I love Coronation Street. My mom and I used to spend Sunday mornings watching it
3. My inspiration is Jillian Michaels. I like how she turned her life around and talks about taking care of yourself. Taking care of "you"
4. I am a movie buff! My husband and I go to the movies every week
5. I love animals (I have two dogs)
Editor: for more information on Liz's accomplishments, and a new feature where I share behind the scenes info from my interview along with some personal information and anecdotes, see my Blog.