The 1999 Honour Roll

Caroline Brunet

‘I’m driven by the desire to know exactly how good I can be’

Bruce Wallace December 13 1999
The 1999 Honour Roll

Caroline Brunet

‘I’m driven by the desire to know exactly how good I can be’

Bruce Wallace December 13 1999

‘I’m driven by the desire to know exactly how good I can be’

THERE ARE ALLIGATORS SLITHERING through the sluggish Florida river and Caroline Brunet, as she has since she was 11, is paddling for her life. Not that she fears the gators’ bite. “They are as afraid of us as we are of them,” she says with a broad grin as she drifts towards shore in a kayak she can propel faster than any woman in the world. But the tapered 30-yearold from Lac Beauport, Que., makes it crystal clear that, to her, paddling for a living has nothing to do with fun. It is about being the best. “I never fell in love with kayaking as much as I did with winning my first race in a kayak,” Brunet says matter-of-factly at her winter training centre. “I’m driven by the desire to know exactly how far I can get, by how good I can be.”

Right now, she has surged to the top of her world. Since winning silver at the 1996 Adanta Games, Brunet has moved up to dominate her sport. She won gold in all three individual distance events at last summer’s world championships in Milan, Italy, the second time she has made a clean sweep at a world championship. And as she prepares for her fourth Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, next year (“I’m pretty much part of the Olympic decor by now,” she jokes), Brunet is the paddler to beat.

Other kayakers marvel at Brunet’s unflinching commitment to a strict training regimen in a sport with a low Canadian profile and few apparent commercial payoffs. Teammates describe her as the most focused athlete they know, able to set aside the demands of media, sponsors and even family to be ready to race. Brunet laughs off suggestions she has sacrificed the normal joys of youth to her quest for Olympic gold (“I do have a personal life outside paddling,” she says, talking enthusiastically about her 31year-old Norwegian boyfriend and men’s Olympic kayak champion, Knut Holmannin). But when she paddles up to a starting line, Brunet says she must know that “physically, I’m the bestprepared athlete there.”

That will to win was evident even as a young child. “When I was 3 or 4, teachers were telling my parents how competitive I was,” she says. Brunet admits her chosen sport could as easily have been downhill skiing had she won her first race on a hill. Instead, that first success came on the water in a club competition at age 11, and Brunet has methodically climbed her sport’s ladder ever since.

Sydney may be the final rung. Brunet speaks brighdy of a postcompetitive life: of having children, of trading her suitcase existence for her home in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains—“of leading a more normal life.” She is tired of the constant pain from sporting injuries, especially the golf-ball-sized mass of scar tissue in her buttocks from the constant friction between bone and muscle while paddling. “It is painful for me to sit in a normal chair, and it is very uncomfortable to sit in the boat,” she says. “After years of paddling, my bum is worn out.” She has no plans to paddle for pleasure when her race days are done. The fastest female kayaker does not even own a recreational sea kayak. She went paddling with the whales on the St. Lawrence River last summer and got seasick, she explains, a blush rising under her Florida tan. Then she’s off with a delicate dip of her paddle into the still river, water flicking away into the late afternoon light, the drops sparkling like gold.

Bruce Wallace

Caroline Brunet