After the announcement that Rowing Canada is parting ways
with controversial coach Mike Spracklen, I applaud the organization for finally making the decision to move forward. I'm sure some Spracklen supporters
will question the decision, but there are many athletes that see this as something that has been a long time coming.
There are those that loved him
, but their experience was markedly different
than those on the outside of his inner circle. My goal here is to shed light on the other side of this story and show why this is a great decision for the team.
Spracklen created an adversarial environment where everybody other than his chosen few were the enemy. This included our international competition, but also the Canadian women, lightweights, and even athletes within his training group that might have taken the spotlight away from him. They were the enemy and he seemed to feel that he had the right to do whatever he wished to negatively affect them to somehow build up his guys.
I'm not suggesting that we all need to hold hands - this is elite sport and it is harsh. I am as hard-edged and competitive as you get, but there is a huge difference between pushing athletes to get the best out of themselves, and manipulating and purposefully wearing down the "disposable" athletes with complete disregard for their ambitions.
That is where I think the real damage was done. Spracklen's focus was always, appropriately, on his top boat, but that didn't have to be at the expense of the rest of the athletes on the team. These are the athletes that contribute to the atmosphere at the training center and push all those above them to train harder and get faster. These are the athletes that are the future of the program that should be developed and encouraged rather than abused.Unfair selection process
Another consistent point of contention was the lack of a transparent selection process. When you run a fair selection process, there are still going to be winners and losers. That is sport - there will be disappointed athletes. But if an athlete can say that he or she got the chance to demonstrate his or her ability in an impartial process, there wouldn't be this intense bitterness that followed many athletes during Spracklen's tenure.
The common response when athletes are bold enough to voice a complaint about the training environment or how they're being treated in Spracklen's camp is that they need to "toughen up." For the vast majority of these athletes, it has never been about toughening up or shying away from hard work. I spent the better part of six years in his program and was at or near the front of the group the entire time - pushing the team forward and adding my fire and intensity to every single workout. That is not what this has been about.
It has been about having our fate in the hands of a coach who has our best interests at heart and wants everyone to succeed. It has been about seeing that a better way was necessary and wanting to avoid all of the mental games and nonsense. It has been about insisting on a fair and transparent selection process set up for the talent of the athlete to shine through, not one set up to produce a desired result.
After years of persisting in a program that wasn't set up for us to succeed, we stood up and said enough is enough. We weren't willing to continue to sacrifice our Olympic dreams so that other athletes, many of whom we beat on a daily basis, could achieve theirs. We forced the split of the group and established the Small Boat Group, led by our coach Terry Paul, focused on producing the fastest pair, four, and double for Canada.
For my pair partner, Dave Calder, and I, the split was a chance to get out from under the program that had oppressed us for years, and for others it was a chance to be a part of a project of their own and not just be cannon fodder for Spracklen. We created a positive training environment and insisted on a fair selection process. It wasn't perfect but every single guy in our group got his chance to prove himself on the water.
As a result we had guys that would have been cast aside actually training towards their own goal. We had guys come across to our group as broken men whose confidence in themselves had been shattered. Terry built them back up and made them believe in themselves again. We trained hard, all of our scores improved dramatically, and we qualified more boats for the Olympics than we have since 1996. As a bonus to all of that, the training was actually fun and exciting again.
That's the thing with Spracklen's approach - it wears you down and sucks the enjoyment out of rowing to the extent that most of his athletes only do one, maybe two, Olympic cycles. The elite rowing countries have many of their top athletes sticking around to do three or four cycles. We do this because we love it - we love the training and we love racing for Canada. But with all of this unnecessary bullshit piled on top of the extremely difficult training, it ceases to be worth it after a while.
Culture of fear
There will always be passionate differences of opinion on either side of issues like this. I get that and can understand why there were those within his group that loved him. I don't agree with it, but I can try to understand. They were protected from the impact of his wrath and have never felt the mental anguish and frustration that goes with that. They were largely removed from worrying about the lack of a fair selection process because many of them hadn't ever needed to truly fight for their seat. So I understand that from the inside of that group, there were few complaints. What I do struggle to understand was the insistence that the rest of us remain martyrs to their cause.
The culture of fear that Spracklen instilled in his group was such that even the top guys, the supposed leaders of the group, hesitated to say anything against his destructive tactics. So the friends and teammates that you went to battle with every day said nothing and shrank into the background, simply happy that it wasn't them facing the brunt of it. And that seemed to be enough - as long as it wasn't them, then everything was fully justified, part of the process, and something that others had to endure while the chosen few chased their goals.
After Dave and I won the silver medal in Beijing, I found myself in a position of leadership on the team and I wasn't going to sit idly by and shy away from demanding change. I learned from the lack of action from past leaders and had way too much respect for my teammates to let that happen again.
We forced the beginnings of change that was long overdue, and I am pleased to see that Rowing Canada has closed that chapter of our history so that we can move forward to a more positive and successful team in its entirety Rio 2016.
Back to accessibility links