Canadian team of the year: Men's eight rowers

For their gutsy gold-medal performance that captivated viewers nationwide and washed away the agony of a crushing defeat, the men's eight rowing crew is's Canadian team of the year.

The world's most dominant crew found redemption in Beijing

The Canadian men's eight team of (clockwise from top left) Andrew Byrnes, Ben Rutledge, Dominic Seiterle, Kyle Hamilton, Malcolm Howard, Jake Wetzel, coxswain Brian Price, Adam Kreek and Kevin Light won an Olympic gold that was four years in the making. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Adam Kreek climbed on to the dock at Shunyi Olympic rowing park in Beijing, still out of breath after winning a gold medal.

"This isn't about redemption. It's about seizing the moment," he said.

Redemption was a word the Canadian men's eight rowing team heard a great deal leading up to the 2008 Summer Games. They had been living under the shadow of their devastating finish four years before in Athens, where the medal favourites ended up in fifth place.

But according to Kreek, the rowers put that thought out of their minds during the finals in Beijing, and bore down for the five minutes, 23.89 seconds in which they never gave up the lead.

On Day 9 of the Games, the reigning world champions clinched the Olympic gold medal they'd spent four years chasing. Their gutsy performance captivated viewers nationwide and washed away the agony of their crushing defeat.

For those reasons, the men's eight rowing crew is's Canadian team of the year.

Four-year journey

While the boys may have been able to forget redemption and seize the moment during the Beijing final, they had to endure four years with the memory of Athens hanging over their heads.

"I've been thinking about it ever since," admitted Kyle Hamilton after the win.

It all started with the first heat in 2004, when the Canadians were on world record pace before being edged by the American crew by less than a second.

"It didn't help us mentally, because at that point we hadn't lost in a couple of years," Hamilton said. "To lose the heat sets you off a bit, and that didn't help us for the final."

They met the Americans again in the final, but this time finished nine seconds behind the winners, way back in fifth place.

The cause of the disappointing finish wasn't easy to identify. "All nine guys in that boat will have a different answer," said Hamilton.

The crew's punishing training regimen paid dividends in the water in Beijing. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))
Head coach Mike Spracklen pointed to the pressure on the team as a contributing factor to the fifth-place finish, pressure no rower in the Canadian boat had ever felt. All nine men in that boat, including coxswain Brian Price, were first-time Olympians in 2004.

Painful as it was, the Athens disaster had a sliver lining: it meant the Beijing team had seven experienced Olympians.

Dominic Seiterle rowed in the men's pairs in the 2000 Sydney Summer Games and didn't make the podium. Jake Wetzel won silver with the men's four in Athens, while Kevin Light, Ben Rutledge, Kreek, Hamilton and Price were part of the eight.

Brutal training regimen

For the next four years, the crew toiled under the single-minded focus of winning in Beijing.

"Mike Spracklen creates the most demanding training regimen in the world," wrote Adam Kreek in a blog for CBC Sports. "He doesn't just pressure his athletes with volume and intensity of work. He constantly presents opponents to compete against. Mother Nature is on the list."

The crew trained each day in sun, rain, snow, hail, strong wind and high waves. Kreek recalls pea-sized chunks of hail hitting his ears while his frozen body struggled with every stroke.

"As aches throb through my body I embrace them. I focus on winning, and the good feelings that come with success," Kreek wrote.

The punishing work paid off. The team of Rutledge of Cranbrook, B.C., Light of Sidney, B.C., Malcolm Howard of Victoria, Andrew Byrnes of Toronto, Wetzel of Saskatoon, Seiterle of Victoria, Kreek of London, Ont., and Hamilton of Richmond, B.C., were undefeated in the two years leading up to Beijing.

Dominated from the start

The crew dominated their opening heat at Shunyi. The Canadians opened up a full boat-length lead at the halfway mark of the 2,000-metre race before cruising to a seven-second victory.

Six days later, the team burst out the gate and led wire to wire on their way to clinching the gold medal.

"We never stopped, we just kept on pushing, every stroke," said Price, who delivered this memorable line seconds before the team crossed the finish line: "Five more strokes and you're Olympic champions."

Easy as they made it look, each man in the boat knew the victory was the culmination of four years of painful physical and mental training.

"Gold medals are awarded in the summer, but they're earned in the winter. That was four years of hard winters," said Hamilton.

After the race, Rutledge stood smiling on the dock.

"A medal means what we've been doing for the past four years is right."