I can’t believe it was already three weeks ago. I looked forward to August 8th of 2012 for almost 4 years. I thought about it every day and every night. I dreamt about the day. I worried about it. I grew anxious for it, but I also feared it. One day out of four years, that would cruelly, arrogantly and unrepentantly dictate how well I had done my job over the past 1461 days, or so. And just like that, it’s behind me. Behind us; since I was certainly not alone in my obsession over those 16 days. Tens of thousands of athletes worldwide made those 16 summer-of-twenty-twelve days their obsession over the course of the quadrennial to which we have just bid farewell. It’s gone now but the history books have recorded virtually every detail.
After having a few weeks to decompress and digest, I’m finally prepared to write my own words of reflection on my experience at my third Olympic Games.
Before I wax, just in case I drone on to excess and a handful of readers don’t make it to the finish line, I want to stress what incredible support I was fortunate enough to receive throughout my preparation. I want to thank The Burloak Canoe Club, Own the Podium, B2TEN, Canoe Kayak Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee, Sport Canada and the Governments of Ontario and Canada. I want to say a massive thank you to my sponsors and supporters; Roots Canada, Proctor and Gamble, Petrobakken, Mazda, Bell, Nelo, General Mills, Oakley, Asics, Spidertech, Waterstreet Financial, 7 Systems, The Running Company and Specialized. I’d be a crazy jerk if I didn’t thank my Mom, my Dad, my brother Luke, my coach Scott Oldershaw and all of my family and friends, especially everyone from Burloak. That creek of ours is overflowing with our sweat and tears. Every race is a group effort whether we’re in K1, C1 or War Canoe, at Western Ontario Divisional Championships or at the Olympic Games.
As my great friend Mark Oldershaw alluded to in his recent, eloquent and perfect blog entry at his www.oldershaw.ca, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Since I’ve already written about most of the stuff that happened over the course of the year, I’m going to start at the beginning of our pre-Olympic prep-camp in our familiar training base of Le-Temple-sur-Lot, France.
We had a small team this time round, however rife with talent and potential. We needed to ensure that our prep-camp wasn’t lonely, that it wasn’t six solo efforts out on the river every day. So we each brought a training partner. Brady Reardon is my friend, a second generation Olympian (Beijing 2008) and my Burloak and Team Canada teammate for over a decade. He missed out on the 2012 Olympic team, and selflessly devoted the better part of his summer to ensuring I’d have a fit sparring partner when I needed one. If I could crack a chunk off of my silver medal, it would belong to Brady. He came to France and soldiered through every session without the slightest glimmer of hesitation or negativity. He helped to make my strengths stronger, and forced my faults to glare. He’s managed to add some momentum to his training and fitness this past year, and I’m certain that he hasn’t yet realized his full potential, or shown us his full hand. Thanks for pushing my limits, Brady.
A few memories from our prep-camp stand out in my mind:
Gabriel Beauchesne-Sevigny, who joined Mark Oldershaw as training partner was so anxious to help in any way he could. On one of our final training days in France, he joined me impromptu for a hard afternoon run. About 15 minutes before I was leaving I asked if he’d join me, because I needed the push. Without even thinking about it he agreed to come along, asking if it was a run or a jog. I told him it would be a lung burner and he smiled back with some kind of masochistic anticipation. Once we had been at it for about 5 minutes, I mentioned the hill at the end of the road we were running on. After 10 minutes of gradually increasing the pace, we would hit a decent incline that would take 5 hard minutes to mount. We saw it coming, and increased our cadence a bit. As soon as we hit the incline, we dialled to the pace we figured we could handle for five minutes of maximal aerobic intensity. Gab and I have some experience with hills. Our uphill battles are pretty epic, if maybe only between the two of us. Whether we’re running, biking or cross country skiing, we seem to enjoy burning our legs into charred, heavy logs of sinew and lactic acid. This interval was no exception. When we hit the top I got a sweaty French Canadian embrace, and Gab said to me in earnest; “When your legs are in shape, you paddle fast. You’re so ready bro”.
Young Jason McCoombs and I had never really chatted before heading over to Temple. He’s new on the team and I’m old on the team, he’s a canoer and I’m a kayaker, he does the sprints and I do the long stuff, he’s from Nova Scotia and I’m from Ontario. So we didn’t not-chat because we’re jerks and we hate one another, we just needed something to chat about. I was sitting with this terrible toy I brought along with me in the common room, half watching the Olympics on TV and half trying to figure out the elusive Rubik’s Cube. Jason was right next to me, audibly gasping every time I screwed the thing up. After it became obvious, I asked him if he wanted the thing. He snatched it from my hands and it was 6 solid colours within 20-seconds. Maybe I’ve been on the National Team since he was playing in the sandbox, but there’s clearly still a ton I can learn from him, on and off the water. I’m looking forward to being his teammate for years to come.
I don’t have a little sister, and Emilie Fournel doesn’t have a big brother, maybe that’s one of the reasons we get along so well. When Em is pissed off and needs someone to talk to, I don’t mind being that person, and when I’m sad and need a girl’s advice, Em has always been there. The first time we met she presented me with the trophy dedicated to the memory of her Father, Olympian Jean Fournel (Montreal 1976). We sat there on the podium in 1999, 17 and 12 years old, crying with her brother Hugues. One night in France we were walking back from dinner together and it was obvious we were mutually crummy moods. It’s the halfway-through-the-training camp blues; where the excitement of your arrival doesn’t quite meet up in the middle with the excitement of going somewhere new. We are not patient people. Em and I vented about our anxieties and frustrations and fears and annoyances on that walk home. By the time we were back we were laughing about how trivial our problems are and how super-dooper excited we were to be going to the Olympics together again.
My men’s kayak teammates, Mark de Jonge, Ryan Cochrane and Hugues Fournel, were only rookies in the sense that this was their first Olympic Games. Mark, Ryan and I have been racing against each other and for Canada together since we were teenagers, and I remember Hugues out-shooting me in K1 200m at Nationals in 2007 for his first ever Senior K1 medal. The genuine enthusiasm and excitement these guys oozed, coupled with their professionalism and intensity helped to fuel my Olympic journey. I looked for a chair next to one of these guys at every meal, hoping to steal by osmosis some rookie-zest. I couldn’t be prouder to call these guys my current and future teammates.
The camp in France ended abruptly on a Wednesday morning, and we took a short flight to London where the Olympics were already fully underway. We arrived late into the night, thankful for a 24-hour cafeteria. We unpacked our Olympic gear like kids, showing it off in the hallway between our rooms, splicing together ridiculous outfits for the sake of sartorial hilarity. Our little squad had developed a wicked tight little bond. There was truly the sense that we were attacking this thing together. Sharing our mutually distinct quivers of skill and experience among our team made us each more whole. Each of us was more prepared for this challenge because we were facing it together.
I can barely remember the three days of training that preceded the regatta at Eton Dorney. Mark Oldershaw and I quickly developed and perfected an early morning routine that made our 7am 30-minute bus ride bearable. I would bring oatmeal and coffee with me and spill it on my lap and often his too. He’d listen to his ipod and stare out the bus window at Windsor Castle dreaming that he was a knight on his way to tournament. We’re familiar old pals, and we know what makes the other guy tick. I know when he could use a slap on his back, and he always says just the right thing when I need it. He knew that I desperately wanted to watch the women’s triathlon, and that the bus schedule dictated that we’d have to sit at our race course and watch on their television rather than get back to the village for a warm lunch and a shower, but he sat and we watched it together. The night before our heats he wanted to go out for a walk in the woods because we’d sat around on the computer most of the afternoon, and I could tell he didn’t want to talk about canoeing or kayaking so we talked about other crap instead. I’ve never seen Mark more perfectly prepared, more attune and content. Since we did all the prep together, I felt I could share his confidence. And so I did.
My heat and semi final were really good. I won ‘em both, and got off the water feeling way more confident than when I went on. I felt like the water was perfect for me. I felt like I could go any speed. If someone showed up next to me in a 450 Horsepower bass boat, I’d give them a go. That made Tuesday, our day off between semi and final, a little easier. I paddled 10km. I did a few little pick-ups. I did a 1000, maybe two. I did whatever I wanted to do. Then I got off the water, safe in the knowledge that I was ready to go.
When Mark and I arrived at the race course early on the 8th of August we changed into paddling clothes and rode the stationary bikes for 5 minutes to wake our legs up. I got on the water and warmed up in the rain. I paddled up the course, and then back down to the bottom for a little 3km loop. I tried to feel the water on my paddle like it was a big extension of my hand. I felt my legs drive my stroke even at a very light intensity. I built up a little sweat, did one good sprint, and put my boat back on the rack. I had about an hour until my race.
Bernie Irvin is so much more than a massage therapist to me. He handed me a small cup of coffee, and told me to sit on the massage table. As he shook out my legs and pushed his strong hands hard into my back he said “this machine is ready for work”. He would know. His hands have kept my body in working order since I was 19 years old. His final words to me before I race are always perfect and well considered. His first ones to me upon my return are the same every time; “Thank you, for your fine work on the water”. No Bernie, thank you.
The sky broke and the sun came through the clouds, so I changed my mind about what to wear and which lenses to use in my Oakley sunglasses. I had twenty five minutes, Mark had about forty. Bernie pinned my number on my back and Mark gave it a slap and said: “You’re faster than you’ve ever been, let’s go buddy”. I just smiled back at him and said, “Let’s go do this bro”.
Scott carried my boat with me down to the dock. I rinsed my hands off in the cold water, stepped into my boat and looked to Scott for some wisdom. He reminded me what the plan was. He made me feel confident about it. He told me in his own way that I’m really fast and that he believes in me. That’s all I needed, just to know that the best coach in the world happens to thinks that I’m good enough.
I raced like I know how to race best. My first 5 strokes gripped the water perfectly and I could relax within 20 seconds of the start. I took it out quick, willing to lead and set a comfortably fast pace. Eirik stayed close and had a really solid push through the final 250. I did everything I could to hold him off, but he had more gas that morning. We’ve had some really great battles over the years. It’s been a full ten years since he invited me to train in Oslo and sleep on his Ikea fold out for a month. We went from that camp, in 2003, to Belgium for a World Cup. I lead most of the way in that race in Hazewinkel and he had a stronger last 250, so he won and I was 2nd. Old habits die hard I guess. Congrats to Eirik on an awesome race in London. Grattis on an amazing career Eirik, and tusen tak for a decade of solid races.
I’m humbled to have shared the podium with Max Hoff, who over the last four years has done more to raise the K1 1000m bar than anyone else. I’m proud of my long-time training partner, Anders Gustafsson for his 5th place finish. I think it’s possible that he and I have logged more kilometers together than any two kayakers from different countries ever have. I’m constantly inspired by the awesome fraternity of kayak-gentlemen that I’m fortunate enough to paddle with every summer.
Max and I were changing into our Olympic podium clothes when we realized that our C1 counterparts, Mark Oldershaw and Sebastien Brendel were racing shortly. We ran out onto the dock to the behest of our volunteer handlers, half dressed and screaming at the top of our freshly-made-raw lungs at our compatriots. We cheered as our buddies became Olympic medalists, and re-congratulated each other on a well fought battle by our two countries, on two fronts.
As Mark crossed the finish line in third place I raised my fists in victory for him. I thought of Scott and wondered where he was watching from and imagined how happy he’d be. I thought of how much his mother Connie-Lee and his sister Tessa might be crying. I thought about how excited his big brother Adam would be, watching with all the athletes he coaches at our club. I thought about how proud his Grampa Bert would be. It was one for the Oldershaw clan, and I was totally overwhelmed with happiness and pride for all of them. When I found Scott he gave me the kind of big hug he generally reserves only for Olympic medals, he said congrats and I congratulated him on Mark’s performance as well. Once I found Mark I gave him a hug too, I buried my face into his shoulder and pulled his massive frame towards my own muttered something about pride and probably swore something and could feel how truly elated he was with his performance that morning.
I finished dressing up for the medal ceremony, accepted a congratulations for Mark from Eirik, and then I got to step up onto the Olympic podium again, and for that opportunity I am truly grateful. A few days later I got to watch another friend become an Olympic medallist as Mark de Jonge broke the sound barrier in his K1 to take a bronze in the K1 200m. I can't think of a better feeling, than realizing our shared Olympic dream together as a team. Our little squad did all right. Overall I’d say that I’m really happy... and if that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.