Three years before the start of the London Olympics, the International Canoe Federation gave Team Canada a figurative punch in the gut—or so it seemed at the time. The organization was dumping 500-m kayak events in favor of 200-m sprints, taking at least one potential medal from perennial 500-m threat, Adam van Koeverden.
Out in Nova Scotia though, one man quietly rejoiced. Mark de Jonge has always been a power paddler. Always will be. “I’m good at blasting off the line,” he explains with a smile, “just not at holding the pace for more than 200 metres.”
Today, the 28-year-old Haligonian can proclaim his joy to the heavens after surging to a bronze in the men’s K-1 200 m, giving Canada the medal it needed to tie its output of 18 in Beijing.
And van Koeverden? He counts among numberless Canadians who are liking sprint kayak a whole lot. ”Scientists are reporting that the loud BANG we heard during the final was Mark de Jonge’s boat breaking the speed of sound,” he tweeted moments after the race.
You’ll have to forgive the hyperbole. De Jonge’s 36.657-second finish fell more than a second short of the searing mark he’d set down a day earlier—the fastest in the semifinals. A breezy headwind had been licking the water at Eton Dorney all morning, and after bursting from the start buoys, the well-muscled Canadian just couldn’t sustain his own pace, yielding in the final 50 metres to Ed McKeever of Britain, who won gold, and Saul Craviotto Rivero of Spain.
Still, by de Jonge’s own reckoning, his paddle was turning at 170 strokes per minute, which from the stands looked like an eggbeater in water. And if canoe officials wanted nail-biting finishes, they’ve found their formula: less than a second separated the seventh-place boat from McKeever’s 36.246. De Jonge missed silver by just over a tenth.
“I was really hoping to get us another gold,” he told reporters, “but I’m so happy just to get on the podium. It’s the highest level of competition you could imagine here. I ended up dying out a bit in the end, but that’s to be expected when you go all out.”
For de Jonge, a seemingly laid-back soul with a degree in civil engineering, the finish brought closure to five years of behind-the-scenes heartbreak. Longing for his moment on the Olympic stage, he’d tried to transform himself into a 500- and 1,000-m racer, only to find he lacked the necessary—and frankly freakish—anaerobic capacity to keep up with the likes of van Koeverden.
After missing the cut for Beijing he considered hanging up his paddle. “I gave everything I had and didn’t qualify,” he said. “It wasn’t that I didn’t like paddling. It was just that I’d tried so hard and I didn’t get enough out of it.” The introduction of the 200-m in London was heaven-sent. But nothing for de Jonge came easy. On April 19, as he ramped up training for London, he crushed the middle finger on his left hand, breaking the bone and slicing the skin.
“It was a dark day,” he said. ”That’s the main finger for pulling in kayaking.” The injury cost him a tune-up race at the World Cup, and he was forced to train through the pain, trying to favour the finger while maintain his pace. He soldiered on—if only because he felt beholden to his family and friends.
But he got through it, and today reaped his reward. “I had an awesome season,” he said, his medal gleaming in the morning sun. “I’m really proud that when the time came, I was ready to go.”