Rower Jason Dorland on what it takes to overcome losing big

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Canadian men's eight rowers collapse following a last-place finish in the Olympic finals in Seoul, Korea, Sept. 25, 1988. Jason Dorland is third from the right (Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand)

First aired on The Current (27/7/12)

In 1988 in Seoul, Jason Dorland was expected to come home a champion. He was a member of the Canadian men's eight rowing team, which won the gold four years before in Los Angeles. On race day, they felt good. They felt strong. They felt ready to win.

They came dead last. And it changed Dorland's life forever. chariotsandhorses.jpg

Dorland, who is now the director of rowing at Ridley College in St. Catharine's, Ontario, wrote about this loss and the difficulties of coming to terms with it in his book, Chariots and Horses: Life Lessons from an Olympic Rower.

It's been 24 years since that race, and Dorland still doesn't know what happened that day. "Nobody was sick, nobody was injured and nothing broke," he told The Current guest host Jim Brown. "We just showed up and had the worst race of our crew's time together." When they stepped out of the boat, Dorland was shocked, angry and embarrassed. "I truly wanted that boat to fill up and I just wanted to sink right there," he said. "It was embarrassing, really, to finish off our season like that."

While Dorland was prepared to lose, he really wasn't prepared for what happened next: nothing. There was no counselling, no team discussion about how to move forward. He was simply handed his tickets home. Once on Canadian soil, it was more of the same. His family didn't mention it. Though the Globe and Mail ran the headline "Canadians Bomb Out in Seoul," no one talked about what it was like to disappoint not only himself, but an entire country. "It was the first time I experienced shame in my athletic career," he said.

Dorland originally decided to throw himself into rowing again, and try to redeem his effort in Seoul by winning a gold in 1992 in Barcelona. He used the loss -- and the front-page photo that accompanied that Globe and Mail story (which you can see above) -- as motivation. He looked at that photo before every practice. Channelling his anger worked at first. "I was really excited at how quickly I came back. Everything indicated I was on track for a really, really successful comeback." But this anger began to seep into the rest of Dorland's life. "It became who I was, which is angry, bitter and really not nice to be around," he said. "I didn't like who I was becoming." So he decided to walk away and focus on saving himself, not his rowing career.

Canada won gold in men's eight rowing in 1992, but Dorland is grateful he wasn't part of that crew. He realizes now that channelling his anger about his loss in 1988 for training purposes was hurting him more than it was helping him -- and if he had won gold using that method, he would probably use it in his coaching methods today. He would still be angry. But walking away "put me down a path that allowed me to discover and learn things about myself that has resulted in me becoming a better coach, a better husband, a better dad, a better person," he said. "If the price of who I am today was losing an Olympic gold medal, I am completely good with that."

Dorland wants his personal journey to be a message to aspiring athletes and to the country that watches them win and lose every four years. He wants us to learn how to discuss losing and how to prepare for it. He believes doing so will free athletes to focus on what they should be doing: achieving world-class performances. Athletes shouldn't feel the need to apologize to Canada for losing. They shouldn't feel shame or embarrassment if they don't make it to the podium. But our emphasis on medal count has created a culture where that happens -- and athletes aren't given adequate preparation to deal with the fall-out of not bringing home hardware.

The image of the tearful athlete apologizing to their coach, teammates and country is a pervasive and powerful one. And it's one Dorland believes needs to end. "It's just ridiculous to think that somebody has to apologize to our country for having a moment where everything didn't line up and fire perfectly," he said. "That's sport. That's why medals can mean so much. They're elusive and they can be determined in a heartbeat."

That said, Dorland believes our athletes deserve more attention, support and funding. He just wants the emphasis to be on the athletes and their journey to the Games. He also wants Canada to celebrate every performance, not just the ones that add to the medal count. After all, the Games were founded to celebrate athletic performance.

"What I would encourage Canadians to do is to reconnect with the intention of the Olympic Games," he said "That is, find out as much as they can about our athletes and connect with their journey."

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