Canadian rower and three-time Olympic gold medallist Marnie McBean knows what it’s like to spend four years preparing for one moment.
She trained for three Olympic Games, experiences that resulted in the triumph of podium finishes in Barcelona and Atlanta, and the disappointment of a back injury that ended her Olympic dream in Sydney.
Eight years removed from rowing at an international level, the 40-year-old now helps other Canadian athletes gear up for their Olympic moments as an athlete mentor with the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC).
"The Olympics come with a consequence unlike any other sporting event," said the four-time Olympic medallist, who with partner Kathleen Heddle became the first Canadians to win three Olympic gold medals
"You screw up at the world championships, and there’s always next year. You screw up at the Olympics, and that’s it. You don’t get another moment for four years."
Normalizing the concepts surrounding the Games and coping with the reality of getting only one shot every four years is part of what the Toronto resident works towards with athletes of all disciplines through the COC’s development programs.
Last year, McBean went to Beijing with 10 of Canada’s elite competitors to take in the atmosphere. They saw the venues, hotels and the site of the Olympic Village, and experienced firsthand the food and pollution they’d only read about.
"It’s important they’re able to do that before the Games start, because these athletes are in such a unique position," McBean said. "For Olympic athletes, it’s kind of like Game 7 all the time."
Her first Game 7 was the 1992 Barcelona Games. There, McBean and Heddle became Canada’s story of the Games as they captured gold medals in the pairs event and with the women’s eight. Everything changed after that.
"I’d won world championships and everything before that, but no one knew about it. This time when I got home, everyone knew," said McBean. "This was different – this was the Olympics. In hindsight, I was really naïve about how big it was."
The pressure was on in Atlanta four years later, as Heddle and McBean were again world champions heading into the Games, but now with two Olympic gold medals under their belts. Managing expectations and media hoopla while staying focused was key to their success, something McBean says wouldn’t have been easy without her long-time partner.
"I don’t have any internal dialogue, and Kathleen has very little external dialogue," she said, smiling. "She was very good at keeping me grounded and keeping our focus."
The pair won gold in double sculls in Atlanta and added a bronze medal in quadruple sculls. A year later, they were inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Heddle retired and started a family, while McBean set her sights on Sydney.
The Summer Games of 2000 provided the rowing veteran with the best learning experience of her Olympic career. McBean qualified in single sculls, but for the first time, she wasn’t a favourite. Days before the event, a back injury forced her to withdraw from competition.
McBean is a tough woman with a formidable, suffer-no-fools personality. "After spending a short period with Marnie," says long-time coach Brian Richardson, "I became aware of her enormous determination and never give in attitude."
Disappointment is etched on her face when she talks about the missed opportunity in Sydney in 2000, though she says not competing was a gift.
"It allowed me to see the Olympics without blinders on. It gave me a chance to listen to a lot of the other athletes, and I learned a lot about the Canadian team that way. I was really able to enjoy it and take it all in."
The 2008 Olympic experience promises similar things for McBean, who will accompany the Canadian team to Beijing in her role as COC athlete mentor.
"It’s such a privilege to be this close to the Games, to be this close to the athletes," she said. "Their focus is at such a fine pinpoint during the Olympics. They only know one thing: This is what they do."