The vindication of Mike Spracklen

Will Canada’s most successful rowing coach be welcomed back?

The vindication of Mike Spracklen

Darren Whiteside/Reuters

There’s no easy path to glory in coach Mike Spracklen’s world, as Rowing Canada knows to its great discomfort. There is only toil and pain, and finding the limits of your endurance. Finding those limits and continually pushing beyond, until the ultimate breaking point becomes the last stroke of the race. “The body will adapt,” he says. “In theory there is no limit to how far the body can improve.” But first a coach must win the hearts and minds of his athletes, and of the bureaucrats and bean-counters who so try his patience.

What do you do with one of the most successful coaches in international rowing history, when he’s also seen by critics as a cantankerous Brit: outspoken, uncompromising and divisive? At age 74 he’ll never morph into the preferred Canadian coaching model: a nurturing sort, heavy on science, innovation and the new ways.

A total review of the Canadian rowing program will be launched, said Peter Cookson, high-performance director for Rowing Canada, after a subpar performance at the 2012 London Summer Games. “Our boats, our equipment, our coaches. Everything we do right now we’re going to look at.”

What that means for Spracklen’s future is an open question. He’s already stared down a rower rebellion among those outside the flagship eight boat, enduring in 2010 what he saw as a humiliating review of his methods by Rowing Canada, as Maclean’s reported in June. He lost responsibility to coach Terry Paul for the men’s small-boat crews, which included many of his detractors. But there’s the inconvenient fact that Spracklen succeeded where others failed, building an inexperienced eight-boat crew around a loyal core of believers who delivered an Olympic silver medal at the Eton Dorney racecourse. The only other rowing medal, a silver, was won by the exceptional and experienced women’s eight, coached by John Keogh, a young, personable and effective import from the Australian rowing program, with an enthusiastic embrace of sports science.

So, two means to the same end—silver—all grist for Rowing Canada’s review. Change is likely inevitable. After the success in Beijing—four medals, and five boats rowing in the finals—Own the Podium, Canada’s sports funding arm, poured $7.4 million into the national program to prepare for London. The disappointing results were those two silvers and a men’s pair boat that finished last in the finals, crewed by two of Spracklen’s harshest critics: David Calder and Scott Frandsen. Ending factionalism in the men’s program has to be a priority for the program.

Controversy often follows in Spracklen’s considerable wake. Malcolm Howard, the Harvard-educated powerhouse who won gold with Spracklen in Beijing and returned as the crew’s leader for London, likens him to Scotty Bowman, the irascible authoritarian and tactician who coached the Montreal Canadiens to five Stanley Cups in eight years. He hurts feelings, says Howard. “It hurts him to,” he says, “but he feels that’s how he’s got to push it, that’s how he’s got to get that performance.” Kevin Light, a gold medalist in Spracklen’s Beijing eight four years ago, says there are people who fold under his withering public critiques delivered from the coach boat, and those who rise up. “Mike always speaks over the megaphone so everyone can hear,” says Light. “I wanted to prove to the other athletes in the group that I could do what he said I wasn’t doing.”

Perhaps Capt. William Bligh of the Bounty is the appropriate nautical comparison: hero or villain of that epic mutiny, depending on who wrote its history.

The Spracklen method guided British rowing legend Steve Redgrave to the first two of his five rowing gold medals. It pushed Canada’s gutsy Silken Laumann to lengths she never thought possible. It helped British crews deliver the first world championship and Olympic medal for women’s rowing—and fomented a rebellion among “whingers” in the program, as Spracklen saw it. He created world-beating U.S. and Canadian men’s eight crews, only to have them fail to reach Olympic podiums in Atlanta and Athens, respectively. He took Canadian men’s eight boats to gold in Barcelona in 1992, to gold in Beijing in 2008, and now—wounded by doubts and detractors—to silver. He’s a high risk-reward proposition.

After their Eton race, the men’s eight universally praised their coach. Nerves and inexperience resulted in a dismal first race, and earned a brutal dressing-down by Spracklen behind the scenes. Having said his piece, he crafted a race plan that largely ignored the invincible German team that loomed large in the crew’s imagination. Beat the rest of the field, he told them, and save the Germans for last. The night before the Olympic final, the crew saw the other Spracklen, the poet and sentimentalist. As he often does before an Olympic final, he recited a verse he’d crafted that touched on the individual strengths of everyone in the boat, and the rigours of training that united them. This time, he ended with an unprecedented request, that they win this race for him.

In the end, they didn’t beat the Germans, though you’d never know it from the celebration of the underdogs, as they chucked a hulking Howard into the drink. Or from a proud Spracklen, who turned to Cookson and said: “Well, that’s a relief.” A relief, however, without a resolution.

Brian Price, the boat’s coxswain, who lived with Spracklen’s moods and furies for three Olympics, is disgusted at his treatment by Rowing Canada. “If this doesn’t vindicate him, I don’t know what will,” he said, his second Olympic medal around his neck. “I don’t know what else he needs to do to prove that he’s the best coach in the world.” Silken Laumann echoed that in an emotional blog post after the race. “You can count on him more than you have counted on anybody in your life,” she said of her former coach. “Through his leadership, the men learned to count on one another.”

And he on them. This crew stuck by him when few would. He’ll continue to coach, but whether he is welcome to do so in Canada hangs unanswered. “Rowing is my passion and being involved with athletes like this is why I do it,” he says. “I’m 10 years past retirement and while I’m wanted, while these athletes want me to coach, then I will continue to coach them.”

It’s up to Rowing Canada to decide if his time has passed; if a gentler approach can receive the same results. If the Spracklen method will be used for Canada, or against it.

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