This piece originally appeared in Issue 782 of HELLO! Canada.
To say it was a wild ride for the athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be to sell their experiences short. From empty stands to emotional family video calls (not to mention a romantic airport proposal!), the Summer Games were like no other.
But having waited an extra year for their dreams to come to fruition, Team Canada stars Andre De Grasse and Jennifer Abel weren't about to let that chance slip away.
"It definitely had a different feel this time around," Andre, 26, says of the strict protocols surrounding the Games. "We didn't have anywhere to go, but for athletes that's almost better because it kept us locked in and focused on what we were there to do. And we did it! Bringing medals back home to Canada is a great feeling."
Medalling in all three of his sprint events, dad of two Andre made his family – and country – proud. Things went swimmingly for diver Jennifer, 30, who won silver – and, on her return home, a ring from her now-fiancé, David Lemieux.
As newly minted ambassadors for RW&CO's Rise Up campaign, the stylish sports superstars took time tout of their busy schedules to chat with HELLO! Canada about their olympic experience, fashion, family and what the future holds.
Jennifer: Diving into love
It was the homecoming seen around the world!
When Quebec-born Jennifer arrived at Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, her boyfriend, boxer David Lemieux, 32, was waiting on bended knee with an engagement ring for a truly romantic surprise. In the now-viral video posted by Team Canada, Jennifer can be seen crying joyful tears as she says yes to her beau of five years in front of friends and family.
"Even though I'm crying in the video, I felt really calm about the situation," she tells HELLO!. "Just thinking about a new, beautiful chapter opening up for us."
With four Olympic Games under her belt, Jennifer is now a two-time medal winner, having won her first silver medal with fellow diver Mélissa Citrini-Beaulieu in the women's three-metre synchronized springboard and winning bronze in the same event with Émilie Heymans at the London 2012 Games.
HELLO! Canada: Congratulations on your engagement!
Jennifer Abel: Thank you! We weren't expecting it to go viral! [Laughs] I think it took me two days to realize what had happened. The next morning, I was looking at my finger thinking it had all been a dream.
Tell us a bit about the moment itself.
I feel like it couldn't have been better timing. I was coming back from Tokyo and I was super emotional. Happy to have won a medal, sad the Olympics were over, also relieved the Olympics were over, everything! I was so excited to go back home and be with my family. Then I land and David gets down on one knee. I was so happy and totally surprised!
Have you started thinking about your wedding dress?
Oh, it's way too early to be thinking about that! I've had so much on my mind lately, including decompressing from the Olympics, I think right now I need to focus on what's going on. Once I'm less in demand maybe I can start looking!
Photo: © Shayne Laverdiere. Styling: Pierre-Olivier Allard. Hair and Make-Up: Sabrina Rinaldi
How would you describe your personal style outside of the pool?
That's a good question because I've been diving my whole life. I started when I was four. So for me, I've always dressed like an athlete, leggings and T-shirts that I can be active in. Being able to wear these outfits made me feel great. Before that I never really knew what I was looking for. I still felt comfortable, but way more stylish!
The Rise Up campaign features inspiring, empowering role models like yourself and Andre. What does it mean to you?
It aligns with me so much. When I was putting the clothing on for the photoshoot, I felt like I was rising as a woman. And the phrase itself, throughout my whole career, I had to rise up to really reach my goals and achieve everything I did, attend every Olympics I did. So I feel like I couldn't have a better connection than that.
What was the overall energy at this year's Olympics?
Obviously, this was very different from the previous one in terms of restrictions. But it wasn't always a bad thing; you really got to see the resilience of the athletes and the staff. We were all there for one reason and that was to give it our best and we made it happen. I think we showed the world that it's possible to have these amazing Games even though we still have COVID-19 around the world.
Was there something from previous Olympics that you felt were missing?
I missed my family, that's for sure. Everything had been set up for them to be there with me. They had their hotel reservation and their plane tickets. But unfortunately, they had to cancel everything. So I was missing them. But I feel fortunate to have a really close family and to have all the technology to talk to them at my fingertips. I didn't feel alone.
Mélissa and Jennifer pose with their silver medals in Tokyo. Photo: © Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images
What crosses your mind when you're standing on the podium?
I was really thinking about this situation. I wasn't thinking about anything other than the fact that Mélissa and I did it. We did everything perfectly. It was easy for us to doubt ourselves. But we didn't.
What do you do when you're not training or competing?
When I'm training, I'm always indoors, so I like to get outside as much as I can. It doesn't matter what I'm doing, I just want to be out, enjoying the weather. I also love to cook and set out recipes. My best one yet is a French one called pouding chômeur.
It's been rumoured you're thinking of retiring. Do you already have plans for the future?
It's super important for me to come back, rest and not make any emotional decisions. I think it's time for me to take a break physically and mentally and really think about what the other options are for me. I will be competing at the World Series this fall, though.
Andre: The race of a lifetime
The screams of his biggest fans may not have echoed throughout the stands of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, but they were the sweetest sounds to Andre's ears.
Having just won a gold medal in the 200-metre race (and becoming the first Canadian to do so since 1928), Andre dashed to a screen to see his family – partner and Olympic hurdler Nia Ali, 32, and their kids, daughter Yuri, 3, a three-month-old son, and Nia's son, Titus, 6 – and share his excitement over the historic moment.
"I love you guys," the Olympian told them. "I can't believe it. Oh, my God. I did it."
Andre, who also won two bronze medals in Tokyo – bringing his total medal count over the past two Olympics to six – has finally been able to process his big victory and re-establish a somewhat normal schedule back home in Toronto.
"When I got back, my family had a cake and balloons waiting for me, they were so excited to celebrate," Andre tells HELLO! before saying with a laugh, "Then, right after, it was back to training and juggling the kids' schedules! But it's good to be home."
HELLO! Canada: Congratulations on your amazing Olympic performance! What were you thinking in the moments after you won the gold medal?
Andre De Grasse: It felt like a dream come true. All my work has paid off. I'm a happy man. I couldn't believe that I did it. Kind of a surreal feeling.
Andre poses with his gold medal in Tokyo. Photo: © Michael Steele/Getty Images
It's been 93 years since a Canadian won the 200-metre race. What was going through your head when you were at the top of the podium and "O Canada" was playing?
I don't know how I kept it together. It reminded me that I was doing it for more than just myself and my family. I was doing it for the country. I had broken a national record, beat my personal best and won a gold medal. It just felt good to be a part of history.
We loved seeing your whole family congratulate you on a video call after your big win, but how did you feel about them being so far away?
It sucked not being able to have them there to support me. But talking to the on video and seeing them jump up and down for me, that was great. They were so proud. It was very, very emotional for me.
Where do you display your medals? Is the gold one a bit more prominent?
[Laughs] I actually haven't really even unpacked yet. They're still in my backpack. I haven't had the energy. The kids are all home, so I've just been soaking up the time with them.
Photo: © Andrew Soule. Styling: Pierre-Olivier Allard. Hair and Make-Up: Sabrina Rinaldi
Let's talk about your style. How do you dress when you're training?
My style is very unique to me. I like to switch it up a lot. I usually can't wait to break out of my sportswear gear and dress up in a suit with a crisp blazer and dress shoes. I like to shop, too. My closet is filled with stuff I haven't even worn yet. But the key to any style is to have the confidence to wear anything. I don't care what people say about it.
What can you tell us about the Rise Up campaign with RW&CO?
The phrase "rise up" is really all about mental preparation. Rising up to the occasion, having resilience and being determined. All the things that I try to embody every single day in my life as well as my career. This campaign really embodies my values. RW&CO gives me the confidence to go out there and do my thing when I'm off the track.
Photo: © Andrew Soule. Styling: Pierre-Olivier Allard. Hair and Make-Up: Sabrina Rinaldi
You mentioned mental preparation and mental health was at the forefront of important discussions at this year's Games, more than ever before.
For sure. A lot of athletes go through crazy amounts of pressure and struggle to perform at their best. I always try to be mentally prepared for that pressure. I have my own routines that I do to get myself ready for a race. I've had my own battles with injuries in the past, but I just work hard to face adversity and keep pushing through. This campaign definitely came at a great time for me to remind me to continue that.