David Ford: Whitewater trailblazer | Skiing | CBC Sports

David Ford: Whitewater trailblazer

Posted: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 | 11:49 PM

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Tenacity and work ethic have been the calling cards of David Ford during his excellent whitewater kayak career. (Kelly VanderBeek) Tenacity and work ethic have been the calling cards of David Ford during his excellent whitewater kayak career. (Kelly VanderBeek)

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David Ford's career has blazed a new trail in the sport of whitewater kayaking. He often talks of his motivation coming from once being told a Canadian would never, and could never, be a world champion in the sport. After countless years of intense training, in 1999 David became the first non-European to win the world championship title, which he held for three years.

Sadly, his journey appears to be nearing its end. On April 15, David narrowly missed qualifying for his sixth Olympics.
There are very few environments in which you're exposed and as vulnerable as you are in sport. You put yourself out there to be judged, to be weighed, and to be, more often than not, found wanting. It's this nature of sport that breeds strong individuals, not only physically but mentally as well.

Athletes are accustomed to losing far more than they win, and the survivors of sport are used to picking themselves back up, taking the lesson, and moving forward better prepared for the next battle.

I've been incredibly lucky to have worked with Alpine Canada - an association that respects what athletes do and tries as hard and as long as they can to fight for them. I feel lucky and honoured to have had such support - especially with the contrast I've seen in other sports and lives.

In particular, my journey stands in stark contrast to that of my husband's as he fought to bring professionalism to a sport that refuses to move beyond "participaction."

A whitewater trailblazer

David Ford's career has blazed a new trail in the sport of whitewater kayaking. He often talks of his motivation coming from once being told a Canadian would never, and could never, be a world champion in the sport. After countless years of intense training, in 1999 David became the first non-European to win the world championship title, which he held for three years.

Now, as he paddles, international competitors on the side of the river gawk and often say, "He paddles like he's 20." Here too, David breaks new ground, as he's been a world-class competitor through his 45th birthday.  

Sadly, his journey appears to be nearing its end. On April 15, David narrowly missed qualifying for his sixth Olympics. One of his elbow tendons ruptured a few months ago, and with no time for the required surgery, countless injections were unable to produce an adequate result for him to paddle to his abilities.

Since David narrowly missed qualifying for the London Olympics, the flood of emails and notes he received from around the world was heartfelt and inspirational. Now, as he heads towards retirement, I feel an overwhelming sense to honour his 30-year career representing Canada to the very best of his abilities around the world and at home.  

In the flood of notes, calls, and e-mails, one comment struck me from an old teammate of David's, Dr. Larry Norman. He noted that this easily could have been David's attempt at not only a sixth Olympics, but a seventh. This is because the sport of whitewater canoe/kayak only returned to the Olympic roster in 1992 after a 20-year hiatus.

However, David was not a man of merely "participaction." Year in and year out he outworked the competition and trained as hard as anyone I've ever met. He was never a part-time athlete, which was the key to his success.  I'm reminded of the Robet Collier phrase: "Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out."

As David's Canadian teammates over the years can attest, David was hard to beat... and he rarely was. These results certainly speak volumes to show David's incredible history in sport as a Canadian blazing new ground:

Accomplishment David Ford All other Canadian men since 1988*
World titles** 2 0
World championship podiums 2 0
World championship top 10s 5 0
World Cup podiums*** 13 0
World Cup overall top 3s 3 0
World Cup top 10s 50-plus 4









*includes world titles and World Cup overall titles
**1988 is when the World Cup circuit began
***In an average year, canoe/kayak holds only 3-5 World Cup events

When David looked at this list, he nonchalantly shrugged and said, "Yeah... (thoughtful pause) I worked hard."

There was no secret, no magic, no bankroll or trust fund. It was simply hard work with purpose and intent. This isn't to say other Canadian athletes in his sport didn't try and work hard, however this shows how truly difficult the sport of whitewater canoe/kayak is.  

Come to think of it, perhaps David does have some magic in there. A magical strength to continually get back up, take the lessons, and work harder than any one else, in spite of a sport organization that seemed intent on getting in his way.  I consider that a magical spirit.

The struggle to achieve


As the London Olympics approach, athletes from around the world are being put to the test. Some will realize their dreams of competing in London,and many will not make the journey.

Having lived through the pursuit and realization of my own Olympic dreams, I empathize with the athletes on both ends of the spectrum. Luckily, David has experienced not only one Olympics Games, but five. Twice he narrowly missed podiums - in Athens in 2004 (fourth) and Beijing in 2008 (sixth). Hopefully, Michael Taylor, the 20-year-old who will represent Canada in London, will gain the experience he needs to go on to becoming "the next David Ford."

As athletes expose themselves in front of the World to be judged and weighed, I hope we all find empathy for their journeys. Athletes like Annamay Pierce, Ian Thorpe, and our men's water polo team came painfully close to their London aspirations. In short, all athletes must be willing to lose in order to win. It is this black and white aspect of sport that perpetuates our love/hate relationship with it.   

It makes me think of a quote from Paul Dennis, a former player development coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs: "Which is more rewarding: the struggle to achieve your goal, or the outcome?"

For two athletes at least, I know the struggle to achieve has been overwhelmingly worth it.

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