She's just been asked if it bothers her at all that she was never an Olympic kayaking champion, despite winning 10 world titles and countless medals. She won two Olympic silver and a bronze in a brilliant career.
“Is that a real question or what?” laughs Brunet over the phone. “Of course, it bothers me. Of course.”
Brunet was inducted last Friday into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame during a gala ceremony in Montreal. That she showed up at the Bell Centre was quite something. She intensely dislikes such events. She showed up because Marcel Aubut, who helped her throughout her career, made the request.
Brunet may be reticent, but she still has so much to offer. She was a hard core athlete, someone who pushed herself to the limit to get the most out of herself. She's always been straightforward and was not afraid to butt heads with the establishment.
“I miss training,” said the 41-year-old from Lac Beauport, Que. “I think it was the best part of my life. I'm not missing it all that much that I can't go on with my life. But I realize how good of a life it was.”
She now works part-time as a lab technician, doing V02 max tests and testing lactate threshold in non-athletes, while studying kinesiology.
“Here, the highs are not as high but then the lows are not as low,” she said. “The goals are never as specific as the ones I had when I was an athlete. Since I was a kid, all I wanted to be was an athlete. It's hard to see myself not being an athlete. I would have to say that's the challenge here. I have to be someone else than what I always wanted to be.”
Brunet was a keen TV spectator during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, but she's picky about her sports, choosing to watch only the long track speed skating, cross country skiing and alpine skiing. For the first time, she experienced a bit of idol worship, watching 37-year-old Clara Hughes finish up her speed skating career with an Olympic bronze medal.
“That has never happened. There's never been an athlete I've been inspired from,” said Brunet. “I always think 'They could have worked harder. Or they could have done better.' That sounds very terrible to say that. But here, at 40 I'm becoming a groupie, I never thought that would happen.”
Brunet ended up writing an email to Hughes, telling her that her attitude of focusing on getting the ultimate performance from herself in a race rather than being consumed with the results really touched her – to a point.
“It helps somehow to have a different perspective on my past of the races I wished I'd won, but at the same time I'm really not her,” said Brunet. “I don't think in that way. I was focused only on winning. So, of course, I'm disappointed I didn't win.”
Flagbearer in the opening ceremonies at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Brunet is passionate about kids being given a fair chance in sport. She said during her Hall of Fame induction speech that she believes the Olympic rings should be in every gymnasium in the country as inspiration for the kids.
“It's not where you come from that should decide whether you're going to be an athlete or not; it should be only your will,” she said.
She believes kids should be exposed to many different sports in school and that an Olympics could be held at the end of every school year.
“We need to make sure we don't lose any talent and all the kids have a fair chance,” she said. “Right now, if you think about it, the only way a kid can make a career out of sport is if his parents pushed him or helped him towards the sport or he was lucky.”
Brunet considers herself lucky. She would never have become a star kayaker had she not live right by a lake. Her sport of choice these days is road cycling.
Brunet seems to have a lot of ideas about helping youth in sport so perhaps it would be a good fit if she got a chance to channel her energy in that direction under her longtime mentor Aubut, now president of the COC.
It's clear as she says good-bye to a journalist who covered her throughout her career that she's still looking for a new outlet for her sporting passion.
“Don't ever forget how fortunate you are to be doing something you love and you can do it the rest of your life," she said. "It's so hard for an athlete because the only reason we stop is our body can't function anymore. Whatever job people can love to do, it's their passion, and they wouldn't want to be doing something else and they can do it til the day they die, I envy those people.”
(Photos by Canadian Press)