True North

By Alan Oldham

Photo by Peter Spurrier. Cambridge. MA. USA. Championships Women's Eights. London Training Centre, CANADA, crew Olympic and WRC medalist, move way from the Eliot Bridge, during the 49th edition of the Head of the Charles.

When I was approached earlier this year to write an article about the direction of Rowing Canada post-Rio, I said yes without hesitation. How could I turn down the chance to write about the sport I love in the country I call home?

Two months and many conversations later and I’m right back where it all started. For me that is, when I first became involved as an aspiring young oarsman in Rowing Canada’s system of athlete development.

James’ Place in London, Ontario, has been the breakfast spot of choice for rowers at the London Training Center for decades.

A generous donor, the late Glen Davis, covered the breakfast bills behind the scenes for years (his estate still does through his wife, Mary-Alice Davis), providing London-based rowers with a nutritious fueling stop between practices. Davis’ funding, along with that of his friend Tom Whealy, has helped in numerous other ways as well to ease the financial burden that so many amateur athletes face.

Although I’ll be paying full price for breakfast today, the food is worth it, as is the ambiance; there is something special about sipping my coffee in view of the building-length mural depicting rowers on nearby Fanshawe Lake.

I’m trying to decide if I like the mural or the display it replaced better: old pictures of past world champions and Olympians.

The wall of champions was inspiring, an exclusive club into which we were all aspiring. The mural in contrast, with its indistinct rowers in three eights flanked by coaches’ launches on the water, is less formidable, more inviting. One shell is out in the lead. Are they racing? Training perhaps? A quad heads up the lake in the far right of the scene while a pair is shouldered on the way in from the water at the bottom left, probably about to head here for breakfast after a hard session.

The duality of these presentations seems to be at the very heart of rowing in Canada, perhaps in every nation: performance and participation.

Exclusivity versus Inclusion

Striking a balance between growing the sport at the grassroots level and pressing forward with an ambitious high-performance agenda is exactly what Rowing Canada’s new CEO, Terry Dillon, has been hired to do.

I caught up with him at an alumni dinner a few weeks ago and he agreed to a follow-up conversation.

“We have to make choices if we want to win medals,” Dillon tells me. “This is the biggest choice faced by Rowing Canada, or any national sports federation: how to balance what needs to be true in high performance with what needs to be true to enhance the experience for everyone in a sport.”

“High-performance sport is about excellence and it is by definition exclusive,” he says. “The participative part of our sport is about inclusion and development. The decision-making principles are completely different. I don’t believe you win medals by simply increasing the number of participants in the sport at the community level, but by supporting, enabling, and accelerating the development of athletes with the ability to succeed at the highest level.”

This view of two solitudes can come across as somewhat harsh, but Dillon feels confident that a clear delineation between performance and general participation is important to future success. As for those transitional points along the development pathway, where grassroots and performance mix, he acknowledges the need for communication to ensure the best outcome for athletes.

“The challenge comes in conversations with someone running a rowing club or university program where they are dealing with broad participation,” he points out. “There may be only one or two athletes in a program with the potential to make a national team. The university or club coach would be encouraged to run a program in which everyone improves.

“With high performance, we are trying to find ways to enhance and accelerate the development of those one or two athletes. We would look to do this by supporting the coach or by providing additional support to those athletes. It is a different game and we haven’t always done a good job of this.”

“What [participation and performance] have in common,” Dillon concludes, “is the power to elevate and unlock potential. At whatever level we participate we are all athletes and we all deserve the chance to grow through our sport.”

Built on Trust

A group of rowers sits down at the table next to me as the server refills my coffee for the third time this morning. They are dressed for the weather and obviously just came from training on the lake.

The water was ice-free in January, but a hard-hitting second and third wave of winter storms kept people indoors for much of the winter here in London. Things have been warming up now for good it seems though, as March comes to a close.

These rowers, it turns out, had been at Rowing Canada’s major training camp on Vancouver Island earlier this winter. The camp was a bit of a departure from previous years in that it was essentially an open invitation for all athletes—those who receive athlete assistance, or “carding,” and those who do not—to come together for joint training and meet some of the new faces within Rowing Canada’s leadership.  Olympians, under-23s, lightweights, heavyweights, men, women, all training together.

“It was a very positive experience,” one of them told me. Everyone around the table agreed.

I had witnessed the first big post-Olympic camp after the London Games four years ago. It was billed then as an opportunity for both the men and women’s squads to do some joint training together and build a common feeling of being a single team.

That goal seems to have finally been realized with this year’s format, which was more inclusive than ever.

“There is a sense that Rowing Canada is interested in asking difficult questions,” said another of the rowers. “They are acknowledging that mistakes have been made and want to move forward with the athletes as partners in the process.”

A third rower took as a positive sign the welcoming words of incoming coach Dave Thompson, who joins Rowing Canada following a silver-medal win in the women’s pair in Rio with New Zealand. “The first two things Dave said to us when we arrived was, ‘I want you to trust me and I will earn that trust’ and ‘I promise to care about you as an athlete and a person.’”

Lessons Learned

I talked briefly with Peter Cookson a few weeks ago at the indoor training facility near Fanshawe Lake that houses Rowing Canada’s London offices. As former director of high performance, Cookson has been at the center of decision-making for Canada’s national program since before the London Olympics. I asked if he’d be willing to share his perspective on the lessons learned and the path forward. Cookson has shouldered much of the blame for perceived shortcomings in the preparations for the Rio Games, which resulted in just one Olympic and one Paralympic medal for the federation; I can sense in his answers the weight of that responsibility.

“There are three essential elements that were part of our plan for the past eight years,” he tells me, adding that he feels strongly these elements are an integral part of creating a sustainably successful system. These are: “1. Building a strong and deep pool of motivated, dedicated and talented athletes that could be successful in the international field; 2. Building a team of coaches and technical leaders to provide proper leadership, direction, and motivation to athletes through the design of their training programs, their approach to selection processes and through their respectful relationships with the athletes; and 3. The provision of a strong daily training environment that supports the athletes and coaches by providing suitable infrastructure, sound support staff, and a competitive environment in which the athletes could thrive.”

While that all sounds like an exemplary objective, Cookson admits that the day-to-day reality didn’t always measure up. “While we were successful in some areas,” he says, “we never achieved the goal of having all three at the right levels to be truly successful at any one time. Our failure in Rio to achieve what we wanted was a factor of not having all the appropriate pieces in place.”

He is quick to take any blame away from the athletes. “I don’t believe it was a factor of not having the right depth and quality of athlete pool,” he says. “I think that Rowing Canada was warranted at looking at and addressing our daily training environment and the coaching and technical leadership aspects of our system. In that stride, there have been some strong decisions made to move forward.”

What Went Right?

While the press has focused almost exclusively on the so called “disappointing” results of Canada’s crews in Rio, there were in fact some outstanding performances. Even among the non-medalists, a radical re-think of how we define success and failure is essential.

Two performances in particular have been under-reported: a silver medal in the lightweight women’s double was Canada’s best-ever showing in that event. Four weeks later, Canada’s legs, trunk, and arms mixed coxed four became the country’s first crew to stand on a Paralympic podium, earning a bronze-medal finish.

“I was in and out—but mostly in—for 15 years,” Lindsey Jennerich, a member of the light women’s double, tells me. “I feel like I saw everything there was to see and I’d say the environments changed less with time than they did with coaches.”

“I’ve seen collaborative environments and dictatorial ones, happy ones, ominous ones,” she continues. “I’ve been around when the team was successful as a whole and I’ve been there when just a select number of crews were performing the way they wanted to.”

Jennerich can see how many of the struggles she’s faced contributed to her success and growth as an athlete. “The road to the Olympic podium is not one where your hand will get held the whole way.”

“Mostly I’d say now, looking back on all the times I struggled without some support that I should have been getting, I don’t regret any moment that I didn’t have [support],” says Jennerich. “When you earn an Olympic medal with someone [Patricia Obee] having had to figure so many things out on your own, how can you possibly regret all those moments? They led us exactly where we wanted to be.”

Not always being in Rowing Canada’s good books meant that Jennerich spent a lot of time outside the system. “To be honest, being on the fringes was very hard at times,” she tells me. “I get the impression that some think of me as a rebel who enjoys controversy and questioning people, but I’m the farthest thing from that.”

The tough times brought Jennerich and Obee closer as a crew and support beyond Rowing Canada was strong, she says. Everything finally came together when coach Tom Morris joined them in the final season before Rio. “It took Tom coming in as an actual employee of Rowing Canada and saying, ‘I believe in you and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get you on that podium.’”

“We were a group that admitted our mistakes, told each other our fears, encouraged, and supported each other at all times and as a result, it was the strongest and healthiest team environment I have ever been a part of and I think that is the underlying reason that our abilities finally fully shone through.”

The Push to Improve

“I stepped away after London 2012,” recalls Meghan Montgomery, who at that point had represented Canada as a member of the legs, trunk, and arms mixed coxed four since before the Beijing 2008 Games, when rowing made its Paralympic debut.

Her retirement from the sport didn’t last long, though, and she was back in the mix as the push toward Rio was heating up. “In my time away, younger athletes were recruited and a more competitive atmosphere was created,” says Montgomery.

After a sixth-place finish in Beijing and a seventh-place showing in London, things had substantially changed for Canada’s para-rowing program as a renewed focus from Rowing Canada began to turn things around.

“This was unlike most of my years competing,” Mongtomery tells me. She remembers the times with less support in the past when the para crew would do most of their training outside the established national training centers in London and Victoria, British Columbia. “Although we had club athletes around, there wasn’t the same drive in training or competitive environment to help push our development.”

“The times we were isolated from training centers and camps were the toughest times for the para program,” she continues. “We needed the example of the Olympic program to help develop a sustainable competitive edge. Competitive workouts and observing the work of other crews was essential in our learning and development.”

With the added support and greater integration into the mainstream programs of Rowing Canada, Montgomery and her crew of Victoria Nolan, Andrew Todd, Curtis Halladay, and Kristen Kit reached new performance highs through 2016. A gold medal at World Rowing Cup III in Poland just two months before the Games was a welcome sign that these Paralympics would be something special.

Despite the strong potential for a medal, the very thing Canadian public sporting policy has claimed— rightly or wrongly—to value above all, the media coverage of Paralympic Rowing was poor.

“Although Canada had the most ever airtime for both TV and radio, it’s definitely not enough,” says Montgomery. “Our race was not broadcasted, which is disappointing.”

That is not something Montgomery dwells on though. She focuses on the good changes that have come about for the para program and is positive for the future as Rowing Canada seems to be adopting more of a one-team approach.

“The year we won gold [at the 2010 world championships], we trained alongside the lightweight women’s double, and the women’s eight and pair,” she points out. “We did a team camp in New Zealand for two weeks prior to the world championships. This also happened to be a good year for the lightweight double [gold] and the women’s eight [silver].”

What Lies Ahead

And finally, because a discussion of Canadian rowing wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Mike Spracklen, I’ll end with an observation of something he was famous for and that goes to the very heart of rowing in this country.

The devotion that Spracklen evoked in his rowers is difficult to understand for those who were not in his program or close to it. Even as an under-23 rower myself, I could feel it and longed to be part of something so encompassing, something I could truly lose myself in. His removal, whether justified or not, was seen by many as a betrayal of the hard work that so many for so long had put in.

One thing at least seems to have endured beyond Spracklen’s tenure: the philosophy that the confidence within elite rowers to be the best in the world comes from training to be the best. It is a wonderful sentiment, but one that must be backed up with the support of an entire system—athletes, coaches, administrators—if it is to lead to sustainable success and preserve athletes’ wellbeing and longevity within that system.

Whenever the burden to perform is shouldered alone, something as simple as an honest loss to a deserving rival can too easily be recast into a personal defeat on a much deeper and self-destructive level.

The agony of defeat is something elite athletes internalize to an often-detrimental degree. It is the role of coaches and the leaders in our sport to be there to support the athletes when they need it most, through good times and bad.

The question of how to attain lasting success, however, is greater than a single coach or an administration. Whatever new direction Rowing Canada steers toward, it is clear that the athletes must be equal partners in the endeavor. There are early signs things are moving this way. For now, while the water is calm in the first year of a new quadrennial, all things seem possible.

The true test for Rowing Canada will come soon enough as the winds of politics and public pressure inevitably strengthen en route to Tokyo. Only then will we be able to assess what truth there will have been in any promises for a golden future.