ATHENS'04

ROWING

KEN MACQUEEN August 16 2004
ATHENS'04

ROWING

KEN MACQUEEN August 16 2004

ROWING

KEN MACQUEEN

IT’S A MUGGY summer morning in London, Ont. Rain threatens, the wind has picked up, and a flotilla of sailboats has added its wake to the chop on Fanshawe Lake, summer home of Canada’s national women’s rowing team. Veteran coach Al Morrow couldn’t be happier. “Work the tailwind here, this could be Athens conditions,” he bellows from his coach’s boat to the eight

women powering across the lake under the guidance of coxswain Sarah Pape of Toronto. Instantly, the pace of their razor-thin boat kicks up a notch. Morrow cranks the throttle of his tiny outboard wide open but still he falls behind as the women’s boat slices across the lake. “Yeah, they’re going for it,” he says, happy about that, too. “I can’t keep up to it.”

Whether the women’s eight has enough horsepower to leave its Olympic competitors in its wake is another matter. Several of the seven boats Canada has qualified for Athens are solid medal contenders. The men’s eight and four—both reigning world championsare considered the boats to beat in their classes, though the wilful wind and waves of the Athens course will have much to say on that score. The women are sending a strong pair, a strong double and an eight that Morrow concedes is a “middle power.”

Two of the best rowers were plucked from the eight in May to build a heavyweight pair. Buffy Williams, 27, of St. Catharines, Ont., battled a rib injury this spring but she’s a portside powerhouse and a complement to Darcy Marquardt, 25, ofRichmond, B.C., the topranked rower on the starboard side. Williams was part of the women’s eight that won bronze at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. “As a crew, we were an emotional basket case,” she says, recalling the stress of the only rowing medal performance at the Sydney Games. She took a year off, vowing only half in jest never to put herself through that again. She came back. “I realized how much I missed it,” she says. “The competitive outlet, the day-in-day-out training.” Even the nerves before a big race. The two women worked quickly to build a bond. It’s Marquardt’s role to call the tactics, and they’ve developed a series of “focus words” she can call out to adjust mid-race strategy or refine technique. Words like “leg” or “shoulder”

or “linear” will stress the push of the legs, the finish of a stroke or straighten the path of their oars through the water.

The women’s lightweight double of Fiona Milne, 32, of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., and Mara Jones, 30, of Aurora, Ont., was also selected in May. Remarkably, after just a month together, they pulled off an upset win in June at the final World Cup race in Lucerne, Switzerland, against some of the toughest competition they’ll face in Athens.

Jones and Milne were the two best boat movers in their lightweight class to emerge from long months of training and competition. The training can be a brutal experience, countless hours spent pounding down lakeside footpaths, pumping iron and pulling on ergometers—rowing machines that record every watt of energy burned. It’s on the water, though, where the sport finally yields its rewards. It’s in the acceleration after every stroke, and in the sound of the water running under the boat, says Jones. Her partner agrees. “I really love it, the feel of the boat,” says Milne. “It’s very technical and it’s really hard to get it right. We’re always striving for that perfect stroke.”

It’s the job of their coach, Laryssa Biesenthal, to turn two strong individuals into a team. There isn’t much time. “A lot of the doubles they are racing against have been together for two years at least,” says Biesenthal, facing her first Olympics as coach after winning bronzes at two consecutive Games as a rower. The World Cup win was “a pleasant surprise,” she says. She’s more heartened by the team’s potential to up their game by Athens. The sport is now so advanced that she can analyze a stroke-by-stroke record of the winning Lucerne race, graphing both the strokes per minute and the resulting boat speed. “There are still a lot of areas where they can improve,” Biesenthal says.

The Canadian rowing program has gone

through a major rebuild after winning just one medal in Sydney. Brian Richardson, a former medal-producing national team rowing coach in his native Australia, was brought back as head Canadian rowing coach. He’d been the Canadian head coach during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, when the team won six medals. Veteran coach Mike Spracklen was lured back to Canada in 2001 to head the men’s heavyweight program, after years as a national team coach in both the U.S. and his home country of England. His Canadian men’s eight won gold in Barcelona in 1992 and he guided rowing legend Silken Laumann to medals in both the 1992 and the 1996 Olympics. Rowers say the coaching sea change has boosted morale and confidence and returned Canada to a rowing power.

“The year after Mike Spracklen arrived we really started seeing results,” says Kevin Light, a member of the men’s eight, which has won two consecutive world championships. Though there have been personnel changes since then, Spracklen’s notoriously tough training has the team feeling confident. “The people with you are as good or better than you are,” Light says. “It’s exciting to put all the power in one boat.”

The greatest variable for all rowing teams is the wind and weather on the course itself. During an Olympic trial last year, the water was so rough that several boats were swamped. “We’re in the hands of the gods and can do nothing about it,” says Spracklen with a shrug. “It’s not satisfying to win because you’ve had a stroke of luck.” Of course, the notoriously competitive coach adds after a pause, “it’s more dissatisfying to lose.” (ifl

FIVE-RING FACTS

■ When the shot put competition begins in Olympia, west of Athens, it will mark the first time that the original home of the Games has hosted women athletes. In fact, women were not even allowed to watch the ancient Games.

■ Forty-four per cent of athletes at these Games are women. On Canada’s team, 134 of 266 competitors are women.