COVER OLYMPICS

‘A GREAT WAY TO GO OUT’

In their last Olympic pairing, Heddle and McBean row to a gold medal

JAMES DEACON August 5 1996
COVER OLYMPICS

‘A GREAT WAY TO GO OUT’

In their last Olympic pairing, Heddle and McBean row to a gold medal

JAMES DEACON August 5 1996

‘A GREAT WAY TO GO OUT’

COVER OLYMPICS

In their last Olympic pairing, Heddle and McBean row to a gold medal

JAMES DEACON

They were spent, drenched with sweat and aching all over. But slowly, as the pain in their limbs dissipated, rowers Kathleen Heddle and Marnie McBean lifted their heads and looked across the water towards the stands. They did not need to consult the scoreboard—the fluttering Maple Leafs and the crowd’s noisy cheers told them that they had won Canada’s first gold medal of the 1996 Summer Games. Heddle fell backwards, weakly shaking her teammate’s hand. McBean opened her mouth to say

something but, as she said afterwards: “I couldn’t catch my breath, let alone say anything.” They turned and waved at the crowd: somewhere in the celebrating throng, there were parents and friends and even, in the case of Heddle, her eight-month-old nephew, Eric. Then, the two great friends, who each won two

gold medals at the 1992 Games, took hold of their oars and began the slow row to the medal presentation. “It felt good to get up there and sing,” said Heddle.

The double-sculls winners triumphed less than 12 hours after a bombing in Atlanta cast a dark shadow across the Games at their halfway stage—and over the most productive day for Canadian competitors. Just as they did four years ago at the Barcelona Olympics, rowers led the way in the medals parade. On the tranquil waters of Lake Lanier, 88 km northeast of Atlanta, single scullers Silken Laumann and Derek Porter, both of Victoria, each won a silver medal.

From the start of the regatta, Heddle and McBean had been indomitable, winning their heats and semi-finals with flawless syncopation and unmatched power— the same qualities had helped them win the pairs event (one oar each as opposed to two each in the doubles) and the women’s eight in 1992. It was not easy in the final, though. They pulled hard off the start of the final, and built a small lead over the Chinese and Dutch boats.

But the lead remained narrow to the end.

“It felt as if we were moments away from having nothing left,” McBean said. “The crowd was going crazy and I’m thinking,

“Where’s the finish line?’ ” They had just enough in reserve. “It was just great to have it done,” she added. “That was the

first thing that went through my head.”

Laumann, 31, got to the final the hard way, losing her first heat to the powerful Dane, Trine Hansen, and thus having to row a second qualifying race—a repechage in rowing parlance—in order to make the semi-finals. Her sluggish beginning did not concern head coach Brian Richardson, who remarked that “Silken has always

been a poor starter at regattas.” She proved him right, winning her repechage easily, then outpulling several serious contenders, including defending world champion Maria Brandin of Sweden, in the semi-final. In the Saturday final, she, Hansen and Yekaterina Khodotovich of Belarus all started fast. Although Laumann took the early lead, it was Khodotovich, a powerful woman with a shy

smile, who slipped across the the finish line first. It was Laumann’s last race, and she was disappointed. “It’s not something that I am going to look back at and wonder what I might have done differently,” Laumann said. “I did everything I could, in training and in the race, and someone else was still better.”

Porter put aside his chiropractic studies in 1995 to take one last serious shot at single-sculler gold. The 28-year-old won the 1993 world championship, but his placing slipped in 1994 and 1995, while he was in school and unable to train full time. He seemed fully in command during the heats and semi-final, and he took the lead in the final through the first 1,500 m. But unpredictable Swiss star Xeno Mueller sprinted home in the final 500 m, leaving Porter to edge out Lange for silver by less than three-tenths of a second. Looking solemn, the Canadian tried to salvage something from silver, saying that he was happy with his effort. Then, he asked dourly, “Do I sound convinced?” His coach, Brian Richardson, said neither Porter nor Laumann had any reason for remorse, but he understood why they would be disappointed. “There’s a saying that you don’t win silver, you lose gold,” Richardson said. “I’m sure that’s how they feel.”

Not every Canadian saw the flag raised last week. Wendy Wiebe of St.

Catharines, Ont., and Colleen Miller of Victoria, three-time world champions and the gold-medal favorites in Atlanta, struggled to find their form all week in the double sculls and were eliminated before the final. “We did what we know how to do,” Miller said sadly, “and at the end of the day, they were just better than us.” Emma Robinson of Winnipeg and Anna Van der Kamp of Port Hardy, B.C., the heirs to Heddle and McBean, finished fifth in the women’s pairs. “If we had rowed the race of our lives, we might have got into the medals,” said Van der Kamp. ‘We just didn’t row that race.”

For some key members of the team, the Olympic regatta was a farewell to competition. Laumann, whose courage in coming back from a horrific injury helped give rowing an unprecedented pro-

file at the 1992 Games, plans to retire. Among other things, she and her husband, realtor John Wallace, intend to go home to Victoria and try out what most people call “normal” life. “I’ll never get completely out of rowing,” Laumann said. “But I am ready to move on—I’m 31, and I have been doing this for a long time.” Heddle, 30, who has been a quiet, powerful force in Canadian rowing, says she is retiring again—and this time, she is not going to let McBean talk her into another boat.

Porter, a member of the victorious men’s eights at Barcelona, says he will return to chiropractic college in Toronto this fall. When that is done, he says, he hopes to set up a practice in Vancouver. “I’ve put off my next life long enough,” he says. And Richardson, the team’s head coach who is credited with merging the once-separate men’s and women’s programs and building a cohesive team, is being courted by, among others, the rowing federation in his native Australia. The Canadian rowers have other ideas. “I hope that we have made it clear to him that we want him back,” said Van der Kamp. Richardson says won’t decide until after the Games. “It is very flattering,” he says. “I guess I’ll have to take some time and think about things.”

Still, there remains a nucleus of athletes who will carry on the Canadians’ tradition of excellence. Both the men’s and women’s eights are relatively young. Robinson and Van der Kamp are 24 and have their sights on the Games at Sydney, Australia, in 2000. Richardson would be missed if he left, but the team has other capable coaches. And the irrepressible McBean, 28, is not yet ready to get out of the water. “I am going to take a few months off,” said the University of Toronto student of kinesiology (the mechanics of human movement), “but I just don’t feel as if I am finished with rowing. It’s such a great lifestyle.”

In Atlanta, however, the future seemed far away. On a day when terror struck deep, even piercing the protective shell surrounding elite athletes who are focused on their competitions, the celebrations on Lake Lanier were understandably muted. But Vancouverite Heddle, the quintessential woman of few words, best summed up what she insists was her last race. “It’s not sad,” she said. “It is a great way to go out.”