TORONTO – Karen Cockburn was soaring and spinning high above trampolines in the sport’s lean years when money for training and travel came out of her own pocket.
The 36-year-old had a dream of competing in the Olympics before trampoline was even added to the Games program.
Cockburn took a chance — fingers crossed — when she chose trampoline over diving. She went on to become one of the world’s most decorated Olympic trampoline athletes and paved a path for a young Rosie McLennan to follow.
Cockburn’s career was celebrated during the national championships on Sunday in Oshawa, Ont., as she officially announced her retirement. She talked about her pride in being the cornerstone of Canada’s team.
“I always had this dream of going to the Olympics, and I remember my diving coach said ‘Well that’s not an Olympic sport, you shouldn’t quit diving to do that,’ ” Cockburn said. “My parents told me to choose one, and I was like ‘Well that’s what I’m passionate about. Maybe it will get into the Olympics one day.’
“I just had this hope that it would.”
The sport made its Olympic debut in 2000 in Sydney, where Cockburn won bronze, as did her husband Mathieu Turgeon. The middle name of their three-year-old daughter, Emilie, is Sydney. She went on to capture silver at both the 2004 and ’08 Olympics, was fourth in 2012 in London, and added eight world championship medals, 52 World Cup medals, and 14 senior national titles.
“To be the first woman to go to the Olympics was pretty special,” she said. “Having the spotlight shine on trampoline and being able to inspire the next generation like Rosie, who is eight years younger than me. . . I’ve known her since she was seven or eight years old, so it’s a pretty special relationship. So to see her do so well has been amazing and now she’s inspiring people too.
“That was kind of my dream to see all that happen.”
McLennan captured back-to-back gold at the 2012 and ’16 Olympics.
“Karen put trampoline on the map for Canada and paved the way for our success,” McLennan said. “For me personally, she changed my dream of being an Olympian into a reality.”
Cockburn lists among her career highlights competing in the Pan Am Games in Toronto, carrying the flag in the closing ceremonies at the Beijing Games and winning her first world title in 2003.
“I remember that was a huge goal of mine, and my coach (Dave Ross) to coach a world champion,” she said. “I think that’s the only competition we both were crying after having a result.”
Cockburn was coming back from having her daughter when she shattered her ankle in 2014. The injury required surgery to insert a metal plate and eight screws.
“When I shattered my ankle I was trying to take care of my daughter who, she was just one at the time, I’m on crutches and trying to make it back in time for the Pan Am Games,” she said. “So I think that’s something that you can learn a lot from and it helps you later on in your life, to persevere through things.
“In those moments, you learn what you’re capable of and you can always go on.”
Cockburn didn’t compete in the Rio Olympics after Canada qualified just one spot. She could have competed another season but couldn’t commit to another four-year Olympic cycle and didn’t want to take away the funding from an up and coming athlete.
She plans to stay involved in sports. She coaches trampoline and will conduct a camp in Whistler, B.C., next month for young trampoline athletes. The couple has a trampoline in the backyard of their Stouffville, Ont., home.
“My daughter is always like ‘Jump with me, jump with me,’ ” she laughed.
She spends her free time playing in a co-ed baseball league or paddle-boarding with her daughter. She’s working on a couple of projects, one on growth and development for her sport, and the other to promote health and fitness for families.