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Van Koeverden not born a 'natural athlete'

Adam Van Koeverden's mother once said her son is not a natural athlete. He agrees.

Sports have never come easy to champion Canadian kayaker

Adam van Koeverden, one of the world's best kayakers, wasn't much interested in sports as a kid. ((Robin Brown/CBC))

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They reviewed their notes, examined the soles of their shoes for bird droppings and found other ways to pass the time while waiting on the muddy banks of a river near Toronto.  

Then, when reigning Olympic champion Adam van Koeverden finally walked ashore, they jostled for position near the kayaker, notepads and microphones at the ready. 

Dozens of sports reporters descended on the Burloak Canoe Club in Oakville that day, all of them eager to talk to a man who says he’s not much of an athlete.

Van Koeverden’s mother, Beata, once told a Toronto newspaper that kayaking was the first sport Adam tried in which the effort he put in equaled the gain he got out of it. Her son, she explained, "is not a natural athlete."

He couldn’t agree more. 

"I would be lying if I said I was," van Koeverden admitted, standing by one of the wooden beams that support the ceiling of the Burloak clubhouse. "I have some abilities as an athlete, clearly. I have very good pain tolerance and my endurance is good. I’m a good runner," he said. "But I can’t really dribble a basketball or kick a soccer ball. And I sink in the pool.

 

"I used to feel weird in gym class because I wasn’t good at any sports, and I felt inferior to the kids who were."

Van Koeverden, Canada's flag-bearer at the opening ceremony in Beijing, offered a wry smile when asked if he suffered the ultimate playground humiliation -- being picked last for a team. "No, because I was never picked at all." 

Bench Warmer

He spent a lot of time on the bench while playing for community softball and soccer teams.  "I wasn’t really drawn to sports," the Olympian said. "I don’t remember exactly what pastime I was drawn to at a young age, but it wasn’t sports."

Still, he would make an effort if a friend agreed to do the same. An athletically challenged friend, that is. "I didn’t want to fail on my own," he admitted with a shrug. "Misery loves company."

He and one of his buddies agreed to try paddling but, when the other boy changed his mind at the last minute, van Koeverden went without him. His mother drove him to the Burloak club on the banks of Sixteen Mile Creek.

On the river that runs from the Niagara Escarpment to Lake Ontario, van Koeverden found his niche.  "I thought there was something alluring about trying to move a boat. It was something weird and obscure that I could do on my own."

Kayaking was not just enticing. It was also a way for the 13 year old to make his mark. "The first thing that made me want to do it was being the best in my school. Nobody else was kayaking so I was automatically the best at it. So, it gave me something."

But recognition didn’t come quickly. Even as he climbed through the ranks of competitive kayaking, few outside the sport’s circles knew who he was.

In 2003, a few months before he won silver (K-1 1000) at the world championships in Gainesville, Ga., van Koeverden approached several elementary schools in Oakville, offering to talk to students about kayaking. School administrators turned him down – but soon regretted their decision.

Adam van Koeverden was a man in demand after his success at the 2004 Athens Games. ((Getty Images))

The next year, van Koeverden won gold (K-1 500) and bronze (K-1 1000) at the Athens Games.

Canadian flag-bearer

He was the Canadian Olympic team’s flag-bearer at the closing ceremony and, later that year, Canadian journalists voted him the country’s best athlete of 2004. (The Lou Marsh Award has been given out every year since 1936.)

School principals came calling, as did most everyone else. International Management Group described him as a national role model and, acknowledging his marketing potential, signed him to a long-term deal.

To date, he has won a bushel full of medals from World Cup events and other international competitions. In 2005, he won silver (K-1 1000) and bronze (K-1 500) at the world championships in Croatia. At last year’s world championships in Germany, he won gold (K-1 500) and silver (K-1 1000).

Van Koeverden is heading into the Beijing Games as a medal favourite and, should he meet expectations, will return to Canada as a conquering hero. No small feat for the man who once dreaded gym class.

"Kayaking continues to be a way for me to distinguish myself," van Koeverden said. "I like being good at something and having a little bit of expertise."

With that, he was done talking to one reporter. Time to move on to another.