It’s not difficult to build a case that Adam van Koeverden is some sort of freak of nature. The 26-year-old kayaker, reigning world and Olympic champion in the K1-500 m, and at least the second-best man on earth at the K1-1000 m, has a resting heart rate that borders on the reptilian—38 beats per minute. His VO2 max, the measure of how many millilitres of oxygen per kilogram he can utilize during a minute of full-tilt activity, is in the mid-to-high 70s. (Someone who scores 60 is considered an elite athlete. A fit, 30-year-old fun-runner woidd be lucky to hit 4S.) His body produces next to no limb-deadening lactic acid, which is awfully useful when the Olympic finals for your events come
24 hours apart. But perhaps the strongest evidence of his otherworldliness is found on the water. Down in Florida, where he has spent most of the winter ramping up for Beijing, he has been spending six to eight hours a day in his boat following a lung-busting training regime that he sums up as “going as close to race speed for as long as you can, as often as you can.” A morning session might feature 10 sets of five-minute-long, highintensity paddles, broken with two-minute rests. In the afternoon, it could be 24 oneminute sprints, with 60 seconds of slow strokes in between. It would kill the rest of us. And one of the main jobs of his coach, Scott Oldershaw, is to stop him from going even harder.
Even among paddlers, van Koeverden is an oddity. In training, as in competition, he has only one gear—flat out. He refuses to conserve strength and coast through the heats.
“He likes to win every race on the water. Every workout, every piece of a workout,” says Dr. Don McKenzie, the UBC physiology prof and physician for Canada’s canoe/kayak team. “By and large, he wears everyone else out.”
Last year, van Koeverden lost a grand total of one race at his chosen distances, finishinsLjust over half a second behind the U.K.’s Tim Brabants in the Kl-1000 m at the World Championships in Duisburg, Germany.
(Although he clinched his fourth straight overall World Cup titles in both disciplines.) And it still bugs the hell out of him. “I recognize that it’s sort of ridiculous to be complaining about being second in the world, but that’s the position I’m in,” he says. “I can’t ignore that I can go faster, that I’ve beaten those guys before, and that I can do it again.”
Silly or not, it’s the type of frustration that should make the rest of the kayaking world nervous about how things might unfold alongside the Chaobai River this August in Beijing. Van Koeverden is not only the favourite to defend his 500-m title, he is serving notice that he intends to find the top step on the podium in the 1,000 m as well. This past summer’s World Championship silver marked his third turn as bridesmaid. “I’ve lost to a guy from New Zealand, a guy from Norway and a guy from Great Britain. I don’t want
to be second anymore, ” he says. “Stacking my silver medals on top of my dresser at home is not my favourite activity.”
In another athlete you could dismiss it all as bravado. But van Koeverden has a way of backing up his words. Four years ago in Athens, where he was considered only a medal hopeful, the kayaker called out his teammates, challenging them to go beyond the ‘ultra-Canadian” goal of simply making an Olympic final. “Sorry, that’s not good enough,” he proclaimed. “That’s why Canadians come in fourth more than anyone else.” A day later in the 1,000 m, the race that everyone—himself included—viewed as his best chance, he flew out the gate, leaving the sport’s elite in his wake for more than half the course, before
eventually fading to the bronze. Twenty-four hours after that, he came back for the 500 m—a distance that even he considered his weaker— survived a slow start and pulled out a shock gold in the last push to the line.
Such displays of will, celebrated when it’s done by the pros—think Babe Ruth pointing to the fences, or Mark Messier guaranteeing a game seven victory—have earned van Koeverden the odd reputation of being maybe a little too cocky for an Olympian, at least one who wears the Maple Leaf. Something he says he understands, but for which he makes no apology. “I’ve never really had any problems with motivation or goal setting,” says van Koeverden. “I train hard every day, I’m a world-class athlete every day, so there’s no reason to think when I line up on race day that I’m a different person or have
lost any of those abilities that I’ve been perfecting and fine tuning over the last 12 years.” But it’s an attitude that the Canadian Olympic Committee undoubtedly wishes it could bottle and distribute more widely. (The kayaker accounted for 17 per cent of the country’s medal haul in Athens.)
Penny Werthner, a University of Ottawa sports psychologist who works with a number of winter and summer Olympians, tells a story from Greece. Like a lot of athletes, van Koeverden likes to listen to his iPod as a pre-competition relaxation technique. But standing dockside in the moments before the Kl-1000 m race he found he had forgotten his headphones back at the hotel. It’s the kind of glitch that would throw many competitors into crisis, says Werthner, let alone one who was awaiting his first ever Olympic final. But what she remembers most is his reaction. “F-k it,” van Koeverden said. “I don’t need to listen to music.” He’s not a superman, says the psychologist, but that sort of mental toughness enables him to crash through more barriers than most people she deals with. “Adam has no fear of putting everything on the line,” she says. “A lot of athletes subconsciously hold back in a race. But he’s able to focus on killing himself for the full 1,000 m, if that’s what it takes.”
If van Koeverden does have a fear, it seems to be not living up to his own sky-high expectations. His lowest point since Athens, he says, came at the 2006 World Championships, where he finished fourth in both distances. “I was in shock that after all the preparation and work I could still come in fourth. It was that realization that some things are not in my control.” How that insight changed him is a little less clear. Winning the Worlds in 2007 became something of an obsession, say those around him. And if anything, the losses appear to have made him even more fanatical about training.
Four years after his gold medal triumph, the only thing that has changed about Adam van Koeverden is that he’s better. “Winning isn’t everything. It’s not the most important thing,” he says.“But in a race, it’s the point.” M
ADAM VAN KOEVERDEN: OLYMPIC NUGGETS
Why kayaking? No specific reason.
I wandered into the canoe club when I was 13, pretty much off the couch. I was a bit of a lazy, underachieving kid. It just kind of found me, I guess.
Do you remember your first competition? Sure. It was a little regatta. I was 14, and I came in ifet.
Pre-race ritual or lucky charm? No,
no superstitions. I don't believe in rituals or being hung up on things I can't necessarily control. I prefer to focus on the tangibles.
Training music? I don't listen to any music on the water. But in the gym I listen to a lot of rock type stuff. The Strokes, Kings of Leon, Broken Social Scene, Jason Collett.
Special diet? No. Anything and everything.
Guilty pleasures? I like going out.
Not getting enough sleep is one of the worst bad habits I've got.
Most embarrassing moment in competition? The National Championships in 2000 in Nova Scotia. I was lining up for my eighth race and I already had seven golds. It was a twoman race—a 200-m sprint and we had a chance to win it, but after about 100 m we fell into the water. Disqualified.
Favourite inspirational quote? It's from [the late American distance runner] Steve Prefontaine: to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.
The secret to surviving on Canada’s amateur sports funding? I'm
going to have to turn it around and say it's not that bad. It's a lot better than in other countries I've trained in. The secret is finding other forms of support and sponsorship and not relying on it for 100 per cent of your income. I worked part-time when I had to and always found it was a good break from training.
Post-competition plans? I really want a cottage on a lake with no motor boats on it.
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