Olympics

LAST GASP FOR GLORY

If's an all-out battle for seats in Canada’s top-rated, Athens-bound boats, KEN MACQUEEN reports

KEN MACQUEEN July 12 2004
Olympics

LAST GASP FOR GLORY

If's an all-out battle for seats in Canada’s top-rated, Athens-bound boats, KEN MACQUEEN reports

KEN MACQUEEN July 12 2004

LAST GASP FOR GLORY

Olympics

THAT WORD, your classic four-letter Anglo-Saxon anthem of rage and frustration, bounces across the wind-chopped water of Victoria’s Elk Lake, powered by a leather-lunged member of the Canadian men’s rowing team. He’s sharing his displeasure at being cut off by a competitor during an informal training race among nine two-man boats. There are, this chill spring morning, some 100 days until the Aug. 13 opening of the 2004

Summer Games in Athens, and much is at stake. For these guys, there are no informal races.

Rowing is a brutal business, and during Olympic years the stakes rise exponentially. Simply put, there are more people than boats, which sets up a struggle of titanic proportion. After years of training together as one— and few sports demand such fluid unity of purpose—teammates are also competitors for a plane ticket to Greece, and a shot at a gold medal.

About 100 men rowed in Canada’s first Olympic speed trials a year ago. That number was relentlessly pared back as competition intensified. There are four men’s boats qualified for the Olympics: a pair, a lightweight four, a heavyweight four and an eight. That’s 18 seats—19 with coxswain Brian Price who steers and sets the pace of the eight-man boat—leaving a number of extras who see their Olympic dreams going under. The eight and the heavyweight four especially—both reigning world champions—are among Canada’s best hopes for medals in Greece. In London, Ont., where most women rowers train, there’s a similar struggle for the last of 12 spots among three Olympic boats. “Your whole life is a selection process,” says rower Kevin Light, one of the last cuts before the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. “It may seem brutal but there’s no other way.” Today, as one of the hardest workers on the team, he’s near certain to earn a place in the glamour event, the

men’s eight. “As you could probably tell this morning, there were a few bits of yelling,” Light says. “That’s what’s going to happen

Rowers aren’t alone in feeling the heat. A weak performance in Sydney caused the Canadian Olympic Committee to hike its qualifying criteria in all sports: only athletes or teams ranked 12th or better in the world—up from 16th—go to Athens, one of the toughest selection standards of any nation at the Games. The move has divided the athletic community. Critics say it shuts out promising young athletes and developing sports programs. Others welcome the committee’s shift in attitude. “They’re paying the bills, they want performance,” says Jim Fowlie, a national team

to athletes who want to win.”

swim coach who worked in the winnertake-all Australian swim system before returning to B.C. “It’s not for you to just go and enjoy yourself.”

There’ll be no passengers on the three boats—the men’s heavyweight eight, four and pair—coached by Mike Spracklen, a canny veteran of national rowing teams in Canada, the U.S. and his native Britain. It was Spracklen who led the Canadian men’s eight to gold at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, and who coached Silken Laumann to medals in two Olympics. He’s there to win, not to foster Canadian tendencies of inclusiveness and fair play. “I think we should make the rules for people who deserve success,” he says. “They’re the people we should be fair to, and not the middle-ofthe-road people who complain because they haven’t had a fair chance to get on a team.”

At first impression Spracklen, with his fringe of white hair and his soft-spoken demeanour, seems almost grandfatherly—if your grandpa has a ruthless streak. He sends the team on a timed pre-breakfast run around the lake, then relaxes in the sun, unperturbed by the recent angry outburst on the water. “You’ve come in at a very intensive period,” he says. Such “back chat,” he happily reports, is the product of workouts so intense they actually alter brain and body chemistry. “At this time of year people are vying for places on the team and, yes, they become more competitive because they’re aware that I’m watching.” Spracklen had just shuffled the teams he then took on ajune World Cup tour in Europe. He sat three new rowers in the eight and moved two disappointed members of that boat—David Calder and Kyle Hamilton—into the pairs event. His instincts would prove correct: all three boats won medals in recent European regattas against competitors they’ll meet in Athens.

Among those promoted to the eight is Darren Barber. At 35 he’s the ancient mariner, the oldest in a team of twentysomethings.

If's an all-out battle for seats in Canada’s top-rated, Athens-bound boats, KEN MACQUEEN reports

KEN MACQUEEN

He won Olympic gold 12 years ago in the eight under Spracklen, left the sport after the 1996 Games to earn a medical degree in Ireland, then returned to Victoria last fall for an improbable comeback. He clawed his way into the program for a chance to work again with Spracklen—a coach who’ll have no compunction about dumping him if necessary. “I know full well my seat’s not secure,” Barber says. “People are pressing me to perform every day to the highest quality. Otherwise, I’ll get bumped and I’ll be replaced. As simple as that.” Spracklen reserves the right to juggle his crews until the national teams are announcedjuly 12. “The longer we leave selection, the stronger the team will be. We give opportunity for other people to catch up,” he says as the rowers arrive, dripping and panting, from their run.

By late afternoon they have endured a second gut-busting session on the water, a workout in the weight room, and are finishing a long, hot date with their ergometers, those torturous rowing machines found in most health clubs. The scene is surreal: 16 men, pulling in unison, seated on machines lined in rows in a covered outdoor plaza near Victoria’s Gorge waterway. Many have shed their shirts, their muscular torsos bathed in sweat. An appreciative female audience, in curlers and capes, watches from the windows of a nearby hairdressing studio. “We do this every Tuesday and Friday afternoon,” Spracklen says with a hint of smirk. “The hair salon is always full.”

For the day’s last act the men jam their ergometers against the columns supporting

the plaza roof. They abandon all attempts at unity and for one wild minute each rows flat-out, their machines bucking against the pillars. They slump exhausted as their all-important erg scores are recorded—the measure of the energy each expended. It’s a number that, in some small way, may determine who goes to Athens.

A few men, Barber among them, are unhappy with their scores. They summon the energy for another go, and a remarkable thing happens. Some of their teammates, their competitors, stay behind—to brace the machines with their feet, to count down the time, to shout encouragement. It’s what good crews do, Barber reflects later, they compete, and they pull together. “It’s a funny relationship,” he says, “isn’t it?” I?il