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Beijing 2008: The brotherhood of Elk Lake

An unwavering belief in one another and their coach brought the eight back to gold


 

The medals are awarded in summer, Kyle Hamilton, the captain of Canada’s golden boat, was saying at the end of a textbook race on a Beijing Sunday evening — before he was pulled away by his impatient teammates, eager to gather their gold and belt out their national anthem and toss their coxswain into the drink. The medals are given in summer; “the medals are won in the winter,” Hamilton was saying. “We’re in the snow, in the wind, in the rain,” he says of their year-round training centre at Elk Lake outside Victoria. “It’s crappy out there, and though it comes down to the one race, we practise rising to the occasion time and time again.”

He could have gone on. They are one, in this boat at any rate, through years of sacrifice and selfishness; by pushing beyond fear and loss, humiliation — and pain. Always pain, in all its forms. True story: the sponsor of the Canadian men’s eight boat is Tylenol.

There is much to learn from rowing, for Canada’s Olympic Committee and for Canadian couch potatoes alike. Rowing accounted for four of Canada’s first seven medals of the Beijing Summer Games. It accounted for Canada’s first medal, a silver, after seven days of drought. That one came on a Saturday afternoon from the rowing pair of David Calder and Scott Frandsen, two men who fought for and failed to win a coveted place in the Canadian eight. They formed a pair and took another path to the podium. A day later, rowing accounted for three more medals, and a heartbreaking fourth by the women’s eight.

Sunday began with bronze for the duo of Tracy Cameron and Melanie Kok in the lightweight double sculls. Afterwards, medals around their necks, they talked in salacious terms about their lust to break training — finally! — and seize their promised reward: McFlurries at the Olympic Village. Then came a bronze for the lightweight men’s four, who reached beyond themselves, as they have so often this season, inspired by the grit of their coach, Bent Jensen, who, desperately ill with pancreatic cancer, finalized their race plan here between doses of chemotherapy.

The Olympic regatta builds, as they always do, to the men’s eight. All golds are equal, but some are more equal than others. The eight is the marquee event, the heavyweight title fight, celebrated for its raw power and for the crazy chemistry of seating nine men in a carbon fibre shell.

It seems simple enough to hear legendary 70-year-old Canadian coach Mike Spracklen tell it. “I’m just looking for who moves the boat,” he said one day, as we bobbed in the coach boat on an Elk Lake training day, back when the final seats in the eight were still up for grabs. “There’s no science to what I do. You just say go, and whoever gets there first is a better guy.”

That’s true on one level, but only in the way that Moby Dick, on one level, is a story of the pursuit of a great whale. No, there is more to it. The realization dawns slowly, after you listen to these men in the eight, and their rivals and their loved ones. They talk about the boat and they talk about their single-minded pursuit of gold, but rather like Herman Melville’s nautical novel, there is much allegory to it. The boat is a brotherhood; the medals are just a pretty manifestation of the many ways the brothers have grown.

GRECIAN RUIN

By now, most Canadians know the shorthand story. The world champion men’s eight — five of whom remain in the Beijing boat — were favourites to win in Athens, too. They made it to the finals only to melt down in dramatic fashion, finishing a humiliating fifth.

Rhonda Hamilton, the sweet, cheerful and protective mother of Kyle, was sitting in the stands that day, as she would be four years later in Beijing with her husband, Jack, and Kyle’s wife, Erika. The Hamiltons had watched their son’s sporting endeavours through elementary and high school. “He was not athletic, to put it nicely,” Rhonda says, “but his coaches have always said that he has been very coachable. He listens and he applies and he works really hard.” He came late to rowing, as many do, while he was a student at the University of British Columbia. He flourished. Still, earning a seat in Spracklen’s eight is the toughest ticket in rowing. In the months leading to Athens, her son had been on the bubble, just squeaking into one of the last open seats. It made the trip to Athens all the sweeter, until the final race went bad and the emotionally shattered crew struggled across the line. “I think one of the worst days of my life was watching my son — who was an adult, he was 26 at the time — crying; knowing that you couldn’t do anything to lessen that pain,” she says. “There’s nothing that you could say or do that would take that pain away, and for a parent, it’s a horrible feeling.”

They were crying, all nine in the boat. Spracklen saw it as they came to the dock. To this day, he doesn’t know what else he could have done as a coach to spare them this. Moments later in Athens, he met the media, and he didn’t mince words. All it takes is one in the crew to buckle under the pressure, he’d said. “I don’t know what happened. I probably will never know. No one is going to say, ‘I was a coward and I gave up.’ ” Some in the media cringed at his assessment, no less harsh for its subdued delivery. The quieter Spracklen speaks, the more intimidating he becomes. It was a measure of the men in that boat, and their respect for Spracklen, that no one backed away from that assessment, and so many came back. Several on that Athens day offered up themselves to reporters as the weak link. No one pointed a finger at another teammate. The brotherhood closed ranks and mourned, Spracklen among them.

“He was a little depressed, a little morose,” says his wife, Annie. She had seen it before. Over his long career, he’s led rowers to greater glory in his native Great Britain, in the United States, and in Canada, as the coach of rowing legend Silken Laumann, of the gold-medal winning men’s eight in 1992, and of the men’s four that captured silver in Athens. But there were painful failures, too, including a world champion American eight crew he coached in Atlanta in 1996 that had an eerily similar meltdown. “It was like that after Atlanta and I got a little upset by it,” Annie says of his struggle with the loss. “I understood it after Athens. I accepted it and knew he would come out of it. Once he started training again, he was fine.”

ON GOLDEN POND

It seemed an obvious question of a man of 70 who had known great disappointment. It was the second day of a visit to Elk Lake, and Spracklen was putting the eight and the rest of the national crew through a brutal 20-km workout. “After Athens, did you ever consider packing it in?” He looked over with a start, as though I was daft. “Not at all. Absolutely, there was never any doubt I would come back,” he said. He looked across the water at some 20 panting men grinding across the tiny lake. “I’m here because these are wonderful guys. I’m not going to get that anywhere else in life, am I?”

Mike Spracklen grew up on the wrong side of the class divide; he was working-class poor in England, and in the lean years before, during and after the Second World War, that was saying something. He took to rowing as a teen with the obsessive joy he would later bring to coaching. It was unpaid, fit in around his day job as he struggled to meet the needs of his wife and two young sons. His success brought even more rowers to his door. “I was jealous of it,” says Annie, “because I felt they shared something that I didn’t share and that’s hard. He’d say, ‘I’ll give it up. I’ll give it up.’ But I’d think, oh, I’m not sure.” Now, as the beloved surrogate mom to a whole crew of hulking young men, she can’t imagine harbouring such thoughts. “You can’t put an old head on young shoulders, but when you get older, you know what matters in life. He has a talent and he should be able to do it. I know he loves me more than he loves anything else,” she says with a serene smile. “But rowing comes a close second.”

He has coached at the elite level in Britain, in the U.S. and in Canada. He has chosen Canada. This year, after three years of waiting, he was finally granted permanent residency status. In three more years he will be eligible for a Canadian passport. It is apparently easier to win Olympic medals for Canada than to gain its citizenship. Still, he and Annie love their pretty seaside town of Sidney, outside of Victoria.

He is less enamoured of Canada’s sporting culture, where his world champion crew squeaks by with a pittance, not much more than the $18,000 a year paid to all Canadian carded athletes. He’s critical of the premium placed on fairness over excellence. He’s all for treating people equally, “but being fair is quite a loose term, isn’t it?” he says. “It normally applies to people who aren’t quite good enough. They cry unfair and politicians normally give in to them. That’s changing but it will be a long time before sport is treated as professionally as it is in other countries — the top countries, that is.”

One thinks of rowing as being neither fair, nor equal. From the famed boat races between Cambridge and Oxford, and the elite crews of the American Ivy League, it’s easy to dismiss it as an indulgence of the upper class. Not true, says Spracklen. Rowing elevates people, he believes. Rowing is largely a university sport, and as a result it produces some of Canada’s best-educated Olympians. There are some on the water now, he says, whose ability with an oar earned them an entree they would never have had to some of the world’s best schools. “I know it’s a bias,” he says. “The quality of the people, the nature of the sport, the skill, the physical endurance, the discipline and mental approach. You use all the systems of your body — no other sport does that.”

The discipline; it’s hard to exaggerate the discipline. Nothing that Harvard or Oxford will throw at you will surpass the demands of the Spracklen Method, a meticulous attention to blade work, combined with a level of physical demand that would be illegal in most any other context. His approach is frequently discussed on rowing websites. One critic, clearly a former rower, insists he improved his golf game by silk-screening pictures of Spracklen onto his golf balls.

Adam Kreek, a returning member of the eight, says in a blog post that to train with Spracklen is to learn to embrace pain. There are no off-training days, unless by some miracle Elk Lake freezes over. He recalls a couple of athletes sensibly putting their boat away on a particularly foul day of driving hail, wind and waves. “Mike walked up to them and with his calm, soft British accent asked what they were doing. ‘We’re putting our boat away. It’s far too windy to row.’ ‘That’s okay,’ he replied in a conciliatory tone, ‘Not everyone can be a world champion.’ ”

At a point during one of our interviews, Spracklen speaks of the need for an eight to have a respected captain — Kyle Hamilton, in this case. It’s not only to set the stroke pace, but to act as a go-between for coach and crew, and to deal with the unexpected on the water. “I can be intimidating at times, it’s part of the strategy, isn’t it?” he says, in the English way of softening a hard fact into a question. “You need somebody who will speak up for the crew.” Or what if the coach boat stops unexpectedly? “It could be I’m having a heart attack and he has to make the decision as to whether he comes to rescue me or carries on with training. His instructions, of course, are to carry on with training.” I dutifully write this in my notes, not convinced he is joking.

Spracklen writes poetry; he is one complex man. It was about this time, early spring, that he quietly began work on a poem. It didn’t have a title yet, but it had a purpose. He would eventually call it The Beijing Dream.

THE CREW

These are big boys. No one in the crew, except of course for coxswain Brian Price (five foot four and a svelte 121 lb.) is less than 200 lb. Andrew Byrnes and Malcolm Howard, both the youngest at 25, and the only Olympic rookies in the eight, each top out at six foot seven. Hamilton is six foot six. Dominic Seiterle, 32, who returned to rowing from a seven-year hiatus after a 13th in the 2000 Sydney Summer Games, is six foot five. The rest, all over six feet, are returnees from Athens: Ben Rutledge, Kreek and Kevin Light were in the eight boat in 2004, while Jake Wetzel was a silver medallist in the four boat.

It’s the day before the big race and Ruth Rutledge, mother of Ben, and Anne Light, mother of Kevin, are talking about what it takes to shovel 6,000 calories a day into a heavyweight rower. Scary. Neither son lives at home, but mothers are mothers.

“I deliver a lasagna every week or two,” says Ruth. “The regular recipe has two layers of pasta, he has asked for five.” Kevin has a favourite dish called Apple Pancake, says Anne. “I deliver it to his door on my way to work. When that’s gone, there’s another one waiting for him. We triple the recipe, we put in 2 1/2 dozen eggs, we put in three cans of Boost [a nutritional energy drink], and flour, sugar and lots of apples. It’s easy to eat, not much chewing. Chewing takes too much energy,” she says, in all seriousness.

“It’s true,” adds Rutledge. “Most of the food they prefer is 10 seconds in the micro, and no thought.” Kevin, says Anne, “wishes he had a hole in his stomach so he could just put the food in because eating is not a pleasure, it’s a chore.” Adds Ruth: “It’s just another thing to worry about. Ben says he sometimes wakes up in the middle of night and thinks, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t eat enough today.’ So he’ll get up and eat two or three peanut butter sandwiches and then go back to bed.”

Each of the men in the eight, and several who didn’t make it, have their reasons for committing to a return after Athens, or for daring to sign on with Spracklen. For five of them, the unfinished business of Athens played a part, but it’s more complex than that. It seems to boil down to this: an absolute, unwavering, unconditional belief in the brotherhood and its coach. The rowers have all made a stab at explaining their motivations, but maybe Anne Light said it best when she described what this boat and this coach mean to Kevin: “He said one of his greatest concerns when he finishes rowing is that he will not have anyone to push him to do his personal best every single day. To push beyond what he thinks he can do. That’s Mike.”

Behind the eight are perhaps 20 others who fought for a seat in the big boat and came up short. Frandsen and Calder — last Saturday’s silver medallists in their recently formed pair — are two of them. Frandsen was a member of the eight in Athens. Calder was in a pair that was disqualified in Athens when the boat strayed out of their lane. They, too, had unfinished business, and their gutsy second-place finish on Saturday was a massive morale boost for Rowing Canada.

Frandsen is the quiet, private one. The emotional half is Calder, who quit the sport after his disappointment in Athens and joined the B.C. public service in Victoria. He returned to rowing a year ago. The early days of his comeback were a brutal reintroduction, not just rowing until you wretch, but while you’re wretching and after you wretch. That’s how you train on Elk Lake. Much of the household burden fell on his wife, Rachel, whose job as an outreach worker became their chief source of income. His contribution to family life many nights was reading a bedtime story to their four-year-old daughter, Mira — both of them asleep by the last page.

And yet, before he’d had a chance to hug his wife and hold his child Saturday, he stole a moment to look at his medal; first the silver side, then the jade side. Then he squeezed it between the palms of his powerful hands. It would go in the wooden trophy case his late grandfather had built him. Dr. John Scatliff was his name; he had post-polio syndrome. He’d drive the teenaged Calder to his practices, often riding near him in the coach boat. He grew weaker as Calder grew stronger, until it was all he could do just to drive his grandson to Elk Lake to drop him off. He watched his grandson add items to the box: the various rowing medals he won, and the first jersey he wore to represent Canada. “He always had faith one day there’d be an Olympic medal in there,” said Calder, still squeezing for dear life. “And, ah, I wasn’t so sure. And then, it’s worked out. This thing is going to go in that box and nobody is ever going to be able to take it away from me.”

THE RACE

Spracklen led a final team meeting on Saturday night at their hotel near the Shunyi rowing site. The course is 2,000 m long. Hamilton, the stroke, subdivided it into 250-m increments, each piece having a rhythm and pace all its own. The key, though, is controlling the race by blasting into the lead early. They discussed the various contingencies: what if the Brits or Americans grab an early lead? What do you leave in the tank for the close? Stuff they’d been over a thousand times. Then Spracklen unveiled his poem:

Everything a coach could dream of,

Is eight fine men in a shell.

Oarsmen committed to excellence,

Determined to excel . . .

The poem rhymed on, extolling the individual virtues of each of the nine in the boat. It was a mushy end to four hard years.

A plan is a beautiful thing when it works. It took the Canadians 1:18.79 to hit the 500-m mark in first. The rowers, facing back, kept their focus in their boat. Byrnes remembers Price, the cox, giving them updates: 2 1/2 seats up on the British boat at that point, and moving. “That was the moment for me, I knew we were going to do it,” says Byrnes.

Everything a coach could wish for,

Is men who push to extremes.

To limits of human endurance,

In relentless pursuit of their dreams.

At 1,500 m, in 4:02.53, they flashed past the stands and the screaming, writhing red and white Canadian contingent: parents, spouses, the women’s team who train in London, Ont., the brotherhood of Elk Lake — most of the people who got them here. They’re tiring now but the cheers help. Kreek is a believer in “positive energy,” and this is feeding the beast.

Ten strokes to the line. The Brits and Americans are duelling for second. No one can possibly catch the Canadians, but Price is calling for power, and they’re delivering it. Finally, he can’t help himself, he throws his arms in the air: “Five more strokes to Olympic gold,” he shouts, in his last act as cox. Elapsed time: 5:23.89. And then . . . pandemonium.

No matter what the morrow may bring

Your courage and strength will always be.

Though I’ve beat you down,

You’ve stood up tall.

You are far better men than me.

It’s not about the medals, really. It’s what they represent.


 

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