Kevin Light has a jagged white scar running down the thumb of his left hand. It tells you some of what you need to know about the volatile chemistry of Canada's national men's eight rowing team. Light and the rest of the Victoria-based crew are the reigning world champions. Most if not all of the crew are bound for the Beijing Summer Games, though coach Mike Spracklen has yet to choose the final Olympic lineup for the eight-rowing's premier event. Their position as the best in the world-a race they won handily in Munich last September, ahead of German and British crews-puts them among the favour ites. But winning all the marbles in the year before an Olympics
No. 7 of a series
is considered to be somewhere between a mixed blessing and a curse. A world champion has never in recent times followed up with Olympic gold—such is the risk of applying pressure to the complex psychology of the eight. The Canadians were world champions entering the Athens Olympics, too. They made it as far as the gold medal race only to suffer an epic meltdown, limping across the finish in fifth place.
The loss was a painful thing to witness: physically imposing men the size of basketball players looked lost and vulnerable, their faces streaked with tears and summer sweat. “It was pretty disappointing,” says Britishborn Spracklen today, with typical understatement. “And when the guys came in from the race, and sat at the dock and cried, all of them, that was pretty unpleasant.” Light was in that Athens boat, and for six months afterwards his sleep was ripped apart by nightmares. He doesn’t remember the dreams, he says, just the horror of them. One night, in their thrall, he slammed his hand onto his night table, awakening to a room sprayed with blood.
It’s a new Olympic quadrennial. Light, a native of Sidney, B.C., came back, fighting for a place in the Beijing boat and a shot at redemption. So did Brian Price of Belleville, Ont., the coxswain who keeps the boat, and the coach’s race plan, on course. He, and rowers Adam Kreek of London, Ont., Ben Rutledge of Cranbrook, B.C., and Kyle Hamilton of Richmond, B.C., were all in the Athens boat, and clawed their way back to win the 2007 world championship. Each has their reasons for returning. Price, now 32, worked in civil engineering after Athens. “And all you’re thinking about is rowing,” he says. “What you didn’t do. What you could have done. What you still know you can do, and do better.”
Perhaps no one was more profoundly changed by the Athens disaster than Hamilton, the first of the crew to announce his attempt at an Olympic comeback. He wasn’t the strongest rower in 2004; in fact, he’d barely made the cut into the highly competitive men’s eight. He’d expected to leave Athens with a medal, retire from rowing and get on with life. He might have done so even
without the medal, if not for his wife, Erica. Devastated at the loss, he sought her out near the water’s edge. “I gave my wife a hug and the first thing she said was, ‘If you want to go another four years, I’ll support it,’ ” he says, sitting on the boathouse steps at the Elk Lake training centre outside Victoria on a recent spring day. “Whether she regrets that now is a whole other story.”
Today, some 3V2 years later, Hamilton has earned the key stroke seat of the eight. He’s the captain, the man who sets the pace, the team leader who acts as liaison with Spracklen, the soft-spoken autocrat who is one of international rowing’s winningest coaches. Spracklen admits he was surprised that Hamilton, of all people, would gamble on another
four years. The guy who barely made the boat in Athens emerged since as the crew’s natural leader. “He’s proven me totally wrong,” says Spracklen, stopwatch in hand during a recent morning on the water. “He can get strong, but he doesn’t lose his temper. He works extremely hard, it’s: T can do this guys, so you can do it,’ he says. He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever had leading.”
Athens was life-changing, says Hamilton. “When I look back on it I can honestly say that probably was the worst day of my life.” That day’s lesson, he admits, took time to sink in. It was a race. We lost. Get stronger. “When you look at the big picture,” he says, “I’ve got to consider myself pretty lucky if that’s the worst day of my life.” The irony of Athens, says Price, is that Hamilton would have retired if they’d won a medal but he
would have lost a sense of his own potential. “We never would have known how good Kyle could have been, because he’s amazing right now,” says Price. “He’s head and shoulders above what he was four years ago.”
The team heading into Beijing, in fact, is hardened and more complex than four years ago. No one in the boat then had Olympic experience. This time only a minority will be Olympic rookies. Added to the crew is Jake Wetzel, perhaps the most intense competitor in the boat. He won silver in the four boat in Athens, losing gold to an elite British crew by just. 08 of a second. To lose gold by inches is not an experience he intends to relive. “The margins are so small,” he says, “you want to be on the right side of it.”
The last eight got to the Athens finals on the strength of Spracklen’s obsessive focus on technique. This boat, says the coach, has far more horsepower: “It’s stronger in pretty well every seat.” He cites as an example the inspired addition of Malcolm Howard, a powerhouse who, as a pre-med student, crewed in the eight at Harvard during three undefeated seasons. ‘Physiologically, there is no one close to him,” says crewmate Hamilton. “I’m glad he’s on our side.” Howard, an Olympic rookie, loves the chemistry of the eight. “It’s such an achievement moulding eight personalities, eight ways of rowing, eight different-sized people to do one thing.” Adding to the mix is the Athens experience, which he says has only sharpened the resolve of coach and crew. “Mike tells us you learn more about yourself from losing than from winning.”
A heavyweight rowing shell looks deceptively frail. It is 18 m long, pencil-thin and weighs about 90 kg. Once Price, the cox, takes the only forward-looking seat and the eight hulking rowers squeeze into a line facing the stern, there’s no room for passengers, or their baggage. With the right coach and motivated athletes, training is a whole-body exercise: bulk becomes muscle, repetition becomes grace and, perhaps toughest of all, failure becomes experience.
That’s the thing about rowing the eight: to move forward, you have to look back. M
KYLE HAMILTON, CAPTAIN: OLYMPIC NUGGETS
Why rowing? It's the only thing I'm good at. I suck at every other sport.
Do you remember your first regatta?
It was a long time ago. It was pretty bad though, I'm sure. I was pretty bad at rowing until, well, about eight years ago.
Any pre-race rituals? I try to stay away from everyone. I like to be on my own.
What music do you listen to while training? I don't listen to anything when I train. I like to hear my thoughts. But before training and after training,
I like angry music. You know, Tool, something like that, or Rage Against the Machine.
Do you follow a special diet? Just volume. I make sure I'm getting [nutrition] right after a workout. I bring shakes down to every workout with blueberries, milk, some protein, all that sort of stuff.
Worst, or most embarrassing moment in competition? The most
embarrassing would have to be [placing fifth] in Athens, that's hands down. Playing junior high basketball,
I shot at my own net once. That's pretty embarrassing.
Do you have an inspirational quote? "To achieve what others don't, you have to do what others won't." That kind of is our training in a nutshell: do more than the other guy—more than the next guy on your team, and the guys on the next team.
What is the secret to surviving on Canada’s amateur sport funding?
A supportive wife. Credit cards. Supportive parents. Without all that you can't do it.
Do you have post-competition plans? After Beijing, my wife and I are going to Hawaii. A cousin of hers is getting married. We're only there for a week because I'm going back to school in September. I've got two more years of law school to finish up.
If I can bring a gold medal to law school it would be nice.
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