Mamie McBean was talking about Silken Laumann. “She is one of the main components that makes our team so strong,” said the Canadian rower. “She’s been an inspiration and a motivator.” But McBean and her pairs partner, Kathleen Heddle, are a formidable force in their own right. And for all the attention paid to Laumann—the 1991 world singles champion making a dramatic recovery from a near-crippling leg injury—it was Canada’s other women rowers who led the remarkable medal haul at Lake Banyoles last weekend. Early Saturday, the women’s four crew powered down the 2,000-m course to grab the first gold, and Heddle and McBean followed with a decisive victory a half hour later. Then, on Sunday, Laumann completed her improbable comeback with a stirring last-minute surge to beat back
an American challenge and tjtke the bronze. “I thought, I’m not coming in fourth,” she said later. By then, the Canadians had copped two more medals: golds in the women’s and men’s eights. “It was nice,” said Laumann, “to see the Canadian flag being put up for the fourth time in the regatta.”
Lighthouse: The triumphant weekend firmly entrenched Canada as a world power in rowing—a gruelling sport that combines brute strength with physical and mental endurance. Actually, Canadians have excelled at the sport before: rowing produced the country’s first world champions just days after Confederation when four men from Saint John, N.B.—a lighthouse keeper and three fishermen—stroked to victory in homemade boats at the 1867 Paris Exhibition. And Ned Hanlan, a flamboyant oarsman from Toronto, captured the world sculling
title on the Thames in England in 1880—just one of his more than 300 rowing victories. Other Canadians went on to win 19 Olympic medals, culminating in six trips to the podium at the Eastern Bloc-boycotted Los Angeles Games in 1984, where Laumann and her sister, Danielle, grabbed bronze in the double scull event.
Four years later, the rowers faltered. At the Seoul Games, the Canadians were shut out of the medals—and only the men’s eight made it to the finals. Laumann, plagued by back pains and rowing with a new partner, finished seventh. Said Peter King, editor of the Ottawabased Rowing Canada Aviron magazine: “It was our worst performance in half a century.”
Laumann, who began rowing on the Credit River in Mississauga, Ont., a decade ago, decided to concentrate on the single scull and started training on Elk Lake near Victoria with Michael Spracklen, the British-born men’s coach. She and the rest of the national team travelled to the world championships in Vienna last August, where they rowed off with four golds—in the women’s single scull, pair, four and eight—and a silver in the men’s eight. Heavily favored to win gold in Barcelona, Laumann suffered a devastating injury in May when a German pairs boat accidentally rammed her shell at a regatta in Germany—driving wood splinters into her flesh and breaking her right ankle. But she persevered and, one month and five operations later, crawled into her shell at Elk Lake to begin
the struggle back. It seemed amazing that she was racing at all, let alone finishing third in the Olympic final won by Romanian Elisabeta Lipa—and wishing she had finished higher. “I prefer gold,” Laumann said, but added: “I don’t think you can ever predict what would have been, and I wouldn’t want to take that away from the winner.”
Chocolate: It was after the success of Laumann and her teammates at the 1984 Olympics that Toronto’s Mamie McBean was introduced to rowing. The makers of Coffee Crisp chocolate bars featured the sport in a TV commercial the next spring, just as McBean, then 17, was looking for something new to absorb her fierce competitive energies. “I had gone through high school being really aggressive at every sport,” she recalls, “but I was never talented at any of them. I would always foul at basketball or get myself bruised up in soccer.” In frustration, she phoned the Argonaut Rowing Club, whose Lake Ontario boat shed she often passed on her bicycle, and signed up for a learn-to-row course. “I just loved it right from the beginning,” she says.
Five months later, Kathleen Heddle, then 19, was crowding into the gymnasium at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver to register for her third-year studies in psychology when she felt a tap on her shoulder. It was the UBC rowing coach scouting the milling bodies for rowing potential. He persuaded Heddle to try the sport. “Right away,” she remembers, “I was good at it.”
Formally, the two women compete as a “coxless pair”—their slender 28-foot plastic rowing shell does not have a helmsman in the stern guiding their direction. Neither does the women’s four. That gold medal-winning crew is composed of British Columbians Kirsten Barnes, 24, Jessica Monroe, 26, and Brenda Taylor, 29, as well as Kay Worthington, 32, who came aboard after fellow Ontarian Jennifer
Doey, 27, suffered muscle spasms.
For the victorious women’s eight, Heddle and McBean joined the crew of the women’s four, as well as Megan Delehanty, 24, of Alberta, and Shannon Crawford, 28, and coxswain Lesley Thompson, 32, both of Ontario. The men’s eight—which nosed out a Romanian boat by 14 one-hundredths of a second— come from as far west as Victoria and as far east as Cape Breton, N.S. Its members: Darren Barber, 23, Derek Porter, 24, Andy Crosby, 26, Mike Forgeron, 26, Robert Marland, 28, Michael Rascher, 27, Bruce Robertson, 30, and John Wallace, 30, and coxswain Terry Paul, 27. For specialists in the smaller shells, the transition to the larger eight-oared boat, which is nearly 60 feet long, can be daunting. Says Crawford: “There’s a lot more noise and activity and the water goes by a lot faster.”
In fact, the water was going by all the Canadian medallists with impressive speed on the weekend—a performance that women’steam coach AÍ Morrow attributes to several factors. For one, the Canadian rowers concentrated on fewer events than at the Seoul Games, entering only eight out of 14 possible competitions, compared with 12 in 1988. For another, coaches have increased the number of weekly training sessions to at least 17, from nine or 10, to improve the athletes’ endurance. They have also boosted the practice regimen—in the case of the women to 200 km a week from between 100 and 120 km.
The Olympic success, the coaches say, also resulted from supreme intensity and dedication. But, inevitably, there have been tensions along the way. Until now, the media focus on Laumann has overshadowed—and at times irritated—other rowers. And even McBean and Heddle acknowledge that their close teamwork occasionally produces friction between them. “Sometimes there’s tension,” Heddle says. “We are very different people.”
In fact, the blond Vancouverite is temperamentally the opposite of her dark-haired crew mate. While Heddle, according to coach Morrow, conceals deep reserves of personal strength behind a shy demeanor, McBean is engagingly assertive and outspoken. “Kathleen is Vancouver,” says Morrow. “She’s West Coast laid back and Mamie is hustle-bustle Toronto. The beauty of it is that as a pair, they offer each other those strengths.” And in the two years that they have rowed together, they have plainly forged close bonds. “There’s a lot of faith between the two of us,” says McBean.
There needs to be. Rowing a featherweight craft demands something close to shared intuition. “She sets the pace,” notes McBean. “She has to believe that I’m following her exactly.” At the same time, she says, “if I want the rate [of strokes] to go up, I can’t just start going faster. I have to ask her, ‘Let’s take it up a bit.’ If either one of us does anything apart from each other, it will screw us up.”
Demanding: But off the water, says McBean, “we give each other personal time to get away—especially when it’s getting intense like this.” Since resuming full-time training in January after an autumn break, neither rower has had much freedom for other pursuits. McBean spends much of her limited spare time reading—American author John Irving is a favorite. Heddle, meanwhile, has found a boyfriend among the small circle of Canadian rowers: for the past several months she has been going out with Don Telfer, a 31-year-old Calgarian whose four-man crew was eliminatéd in the Olympic semifinals. A demanding schedule left all the rowers little time for sightseeing, despite having been in Europe since May for a series of preOlympic regattas. “I don’t really feel like we’re in Europe,” says Heddle. “We might as well be in Indianapolis.”
Canada’s rowers put other pursuits aside, in most cases since 1990, to concentrate on the Games. Thompson and Doey took absences from their jobs as teachers. Crawford left work as a nurse; Worthington put her job as a computer software trainer on hold. Says Morrow, with evident pride in their dedication: “It is basically full-time, without pay.” Not entirely: team members receive stipends from Sport Canada.
Still, rowing offers few of the avenues to wealth that such high-profile Olympic sports as track and field do— let alone such spectacles as professional baseball or basketball. Heddle and McBean acknowledge that after the Games, they may have to look for more lucrative pursuits. McBean plans to return to her interrupted studies in physical education at the University of Western Ontario in London, where she will also work as a rowing coach. Heddle, meanwhile, in true laid-back West Coast fashion, has no firm plans. But she is buying a boat: a $5,000 single scull.
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