Canada’s powerful rowers stake their claim on Lake Lanier
The Gainesville Gold Rush
Canada’s powerful rowers stake their claim on Lake Lanier
On an unseasonably cold summer morning on Fanshawe Lake, near London, Ont., a pounding rain plays a tin-roofed boathouse like a cheap drum and turns the rutted path down to the lake into a frothing, muddy torrent. The downpour would convince a duck to call in sick—but not Canada’s national team rowers. In worn and ripped workout gear, they shoulder their sculls and head purposefully out into the monsoon. Each day of training is critical to getting faster and stronger. And despite the meteorological gloom, the mood is buoyant: after years of training in obscurity, the Olympic regatta is at last in sight. “We all had a lot of work to do when we got here,” explains Marnie McBean, one-half of the world champion women’s doubles team. “And the good news is, we are getting it done.”
Without much recognition, scullers have been getting it done at the Olympics for a long time. Since the sport was first included in the Games in 1900, Canadians have quietly brought home 23 medals—more than in any other sport except track and swimming. The members of the current Canadian team are set to continue that tradition of excellence, with one difference: they are not going to do it quietly. On Lake Lanier, near Gainesville,
90 km northeast of Atlanta, rowers are threatening to make their sport Canada’s focal point of the 1996 Games. Although team officials refuse to burden their athletes with overwhelming expectations, some insiders predict the team will win seven medals.
The roster is impressive. McBean of Toronto and Kathleen Heddle of Vancouver, and Colleen Miller of Winnipeg and Wendy Wiebe of St. Catharines, Ont., in the lightweight doubles, are favorites to win gold. Single scullers Derek Porter and Silken Laumann, both of Victoria, were dominating in recent regattas. Other crews, including the women’s heavyweight quad, the lightweight men’s straight four and the men’s heavyweight eights, have all done well in international competitions and have served notice that they plan to challenge for medals. Head coach Brian Richardson, who took over the team after the Barcelona Games in 1992, could not suppress a smile when asked about the possibilities. “Let’s just say,” the Australian understated, “that if they all row to their potential, we will do very well.”
Canada is not an average sculling powerhouse. There are not thousands of avid amateurs from which to choose, as there are in such traditional hotbeds as Germany and the Netherlands. And Canada has precious few clubs. But the country’s coaches have demonstrated that the tiny talent pool is not necessarily an obstacle to producing fast boats. “With our small number of athletes and coaches, we have to work very well together,” says AÍ
Morrow, one of the national team coaches. “We are highly regarded internationally for working well as a team.” But both Morrow and Richardson credit the veteran rowers with helping the rest of the squad achieve the lofty performance levels. “These athletes work very hard and make huge sacrifices in their personal and professional lives,” Morrow says.
They certainly don’t do it for the money. Despite their Olympic success, few of the rowers get personal endorsement offers, and most team members pay for some of their training expenses—for travel, food and accommodations—out of their own pockets. Yet the athletes say the sport is difficult to give up. Heddle, who retired after Barcelona, came back less than two years later because she was unable to find another career that was as fulfilling. “When you are not rowing, you don’t have the concrete goals to meet every day,” she says. “I think that’s a lot of what motivates me and gets me through the training.”
Laumann, the highest-profile of the rowers—she endorses McDonald’s, IDA drug stores and Subaru, among others—goes to Atlanta to take care of unfinished business. She became an international sensation in Barcelona for finishing third only 10 weeks after her leg was smashed in a training accident. But Laumann would have been the favorite for gold had she not been hurt, and in an effort to regain that status, she moved to San Diego last year to train with Mike Spraklen, her pre-Barcelona
mentor who now coaches the U.S. men’s team. The arrangement brought results. Laumann, now 32, defeated a field that included 1995 world champion Maria Brandin of Sweden by nearly five seconds at a race in Duisburg, Germany, last May.
The comeback has had its mishaps. At the 1994 world championships, Laumann false-started twice and was disqualified from the final. And at the 1995 Pan American Games in Argentina, she tested positive for a banned stimulant after taking the wrong cold remedy. “It hasn’t exactly gone according to plan,” she says, laughing, “but I think those things just made me stronger.” Laumann now seems serenely confident. She is focused, working harder than ever, and it is Laumann—not Brandin—who will be the sculler to beat on Lake Lanier.
Porter, 28, also has regained his place among the top men, including Iztok Cop, 1995 world champion from Slovenia, and Thomas Lange, a 1992 gold medalist from Germany, largely because he interrupted pursuit of a chiropractic diploma last year to devote full-time attention to rowing. After winning the 1993 world championships, Porter tried to mix school with rowing, and fell to eighth at the world championships in 1994 and seventh last year. The concentration on sport paid off—he won two of three races at the Duisburg and Lucerne regattas this spring. Porter, a member of the gold-medal-winning heavyweight men’s eights in Barcelona, does not always keep the same schedule as the others—“Derek needs more sleep than the rest of us,” Richardson jokes. But he has the discipline to push himself for 50 km a day on the water. “I’m at the point where I’m
pretty difficult to coach,” he says. “I know what I have to do and I only need to work with Brian maybe twice a week.”
If Laumann is the recognized face of the team, McBean and Heddle are the heart. Their personalities differ—McBean is vivacious, while Heddle is a woman of few words—but they have formed a formidable partnership. McBean raises funds for the team—she even donates a portion of her own sponsorship income—and is an indefatigable champion for her sport. Heddle, meanwhile, leads by example, working hard in every training session without complaint. Double gold-medal winners in 1992, the two reunited after McBean talked Heddle out of retirement.
To give themselves new chal| lenges for 1996, the two changed d events. They won gold in the pairs I and eights in 1992, but this year I they will row the doubles (two oars S each as opposed to one each in £ pairs), and the quad along with m Laryssa Biesenthal and Diane I O’Grady. Heddle admits there is I more pressure to perform at these o Games, and only partly because of a competition from the Germans and Dutch. “Going into 1992, we were more naïve,” she says. “We knew we were going to the Olympics, but there was not so much attention. It seems a bit harder, more stressful now, because it is built up so much.” They deflect pressure by focusing not on winning, but on repeating the work they have done countless times in practice. “If we do that, the race takes care of itself,” McBean says. “I find that really comforting—when everyone around us is in a frenzy, we just get on the water and deal with our task.”
Miller and Wiebe have been doing the same—so well, in fact, that they are the favorites for gold. They have won the last three world titles, and they were undefeated this spring in Europe. But they know that reputations do not win medals—Canada went to
the 1988 Games with high hopes, and came away with no medals. Still, the atmosphere around the current team is charged with optimism.
Aside from the heat, the one thing the rowers can count on at the Games is that they will experience intense pain. Generally, it begins at about the halfway mark on the 2,000metre course, and it can be scary for inexperienced competitors. “The difference now is that we know we are not going to die, because we have done the training,” McBean says. Rowing is a sport that rewards experience—knowing how to read a race and, especially, how to use the pain to your advantage. “We know that when it hurts for us, it is hurting everybody,” she says. “So when we are out there, one of the things that we like to think of is outlasting our competition. It works.” She and Heddle—and the rest of the team— will be out to prove that one more time in Atlanta. □
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