When Cheryl Gibson came to Vancouver in November 1975 to join Deryk Snelling’s Canadian Dolphins Swim Club, Snelling planted an improbable seed in the mind of the sixteen-year-old.

Snelling predicted a time of four minutes fifty seconds or better would be required to win the gold medal of the 400m Individual Medley at the 1976 Olympics only eight months away. Gibson thought he was crazy. Her best time was 4:58. Eight seconds was a lifetime in the medley. Yet the seed was planted and wouldn’t so much grow as flourish under Snelling’s watchful eye. In Montreal eight months later, Gibson produced one of Canada’s best results of the Olympics earning a silver that, as it turned out later, should have been gold.

Born in Edmonton, Gibson was introduced to swimming by her father who often brought the family to public pools to swim. Never able to master anything in diving short of a belly flop, Gibson showed more promise in the pool. She was invited to join the Mill Creek Swim Club in Edmonton complete with team colours of electric blue and black stripes.

Gibson was good, not great, always on the fringe of the provincial top-eight in her age group. Switching to the Edmonton ‘Y’ Torpedoes brought a new level of training and her first provincial championship. After the Torpedoes folded, she moved over to the Olympians club coached by Susan Smith of the remarkable Smith family swimming clan. After this club dispersed, Gibson opted for Snelling’s Dolphins.

Training out of the Vancouver Aquatic Centre under a future BC Sports Hall of Famer had its benefits, one being the level of competition he assembled. Every single practice was like an Olympic final. Training beside future BC Sports Hall of Fame inductees Leslie Cliff and Wendy Cook, as well as strong international swimmers Susan Sloan and Gail Amundrud, Gibson forged the fitness and mental toughness required to be successful in Montreal. Even then, no one foresaw what was to come.

Going in, the overwhelming favourite in the 400 IM was East German whirlwind Ulrike Tauber, who sped off to a world record and the gold medal. Gibson swam the race of her life in 4:48.10 bettering the previous world record by seven tenths and her own personal best by six seconds, grabbing the silver medal. In an Olympics fraught with Canadian underachievement failing to win a single gold medal, Gibson’s swim stood as one of the few highlights. Years later, revelations of the East German doping program shocked the sports world with Tauber one of the prime culprits and tainted any result she achieved. In a drug-free race, Gibson takes the gold.

Over the course of her career, Gibson would win thirty-four gold, fifteen silver, and thirteen bronze medals in national competition. Later collecting gold medals at the 1978 and 1982 Commonwealth Games, in total Gibson captured four gold, seven silver, and five bronze medals at major international games and competitions. In 1976, she was awarded the Velma Springstead Trophy as Canada’s outstanding female athlete.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.