Olympics Summer

Rowing for redemption

The Canadian men's eight crew is again favoured to win gold, mirroring the lead up to the Athens Games four years ago, which ended with a disappointing fifth place finish.

Members of the world champion Canadian men's eight say Beijing won't be a repeat of four years ago

The gold medal-favoured Canadian men's eight crew reacts to a disappointing fifth place finish at the 2004 Olympic Games. ((David Guttenfelder/Canadian Press))

It was August 22, 2004. Drenched in sweat, members of the gold-medal favourite Canadian men’s eight were slumped over in their boat after the Olympic final. They couldn’t believe it. They had finished fifth.

The gold-medal Americans were celebrating before Canada even crossed the finish line, nine seconds behind — in rowing, an eternity.

Four years after ending a two-year winning streak on the Olympic stage, Canada is back. World champions, number one in the world and undefeated in 2008, the Canucks are the boat to beat at the Beijing Olympic Games. 

"It brings back memories," says stroke Kyle Hamilton, 30, one of five members of the eight who competed in Athens and is now Beijing-bound. Hamilton put off retirement plans in 2004 to take another shot at Olympic gold.

"There are going to be off races, everyone has them," he says, reflecting on Athens. "It was just really poor timing for us."

Tough loss to Americans

The cause of the disappointing finish four years ago isn’t easy to identify. "All nine guys in that boat will have a different answer," says Hamilton.

Adam Kreek, left, Kevin Light, centre, and Joe Stankevicious stand on the dock after losing their heat to the Americans at the Athens Summer Games. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

It started in the first heat. Canada rowed a personal best that would have stood as the new world record over the 2000 meter distance had the Americans not edged them by less than a second. That put the Canadians off their game.

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

Head coach Mike Spracklen points to the pressure on the team four years ago as a contributing factor to the fifth place finish, pressure no rower in the Canadian boat had ever felt. All nine men were first-time Olympians in 2004. 

"You get a lot of pressure as Olympians, from people around you, your friends, relations, the press, the government. You feel responsible for them," Spracklen says. "It’s how you react to the pressure. Expectations are high and meeting those expectations is exceptionally difficult.

"It’s a hard thing to do," he adds, "but we’re pretty confident they can deal with it this time around."

With seven experienced Olympians in the Canadian boat, the veteran coach is the first to express what he expects of his crew. "A win of course," he deadpans. "Anything else will be disappointing."

The Canadian crew that won the 2007 world championships – Jake Wetzel of Saskatchewan; Kevin Light, Kyle Hamilton, Ben Rutledge, Malcolm Howard and Dominic Seiterle of British Columbia; Andrew Byrnes, Adam Kreek and coxswain Brian Price of Ontario – will likely be the crew Canada will see in Beijing, though Spracklen is quick to point out changes could be made if necessary.

Two dads and a Harvard grad

They’ve been racing together since the first world cup of the 2007 season and have been living and training in Victoria all year. The experiences in the boat are varied – there are two first-time Olympians, two dads and 25-year-old Malcolm Howard, a Harvard graduate who still lives at home with his mom. 

Bottom, left to right, Kevin Light, Kyle Hamilton, Adam Kreek and top, left to right, Ben Rutledge, James Byrnes, Brian Price, Jake Wetzel, Malcom Howard and Dominic Seiterle after winning the 2007 world championships. ((Joerg Koch/Getty Images) )

"We’re going to do everything right this time," says Howard. "We’re there to win. We train the way we do, we train as hard as we do, to win. That’s been the goal with this eight."

It’s a second shot at gold for seven members of the Canadian boat. Seiterle rowed in the men’s pairs in the 2000 Sydney Summer Games and didn’t make the podium. Light, Rutledge, Kreek, Hamilton and Price were part of the eight in Athens, and Wetzel won silver with the men’s four.

Price will again be the eyes of the eight-man crew, its ninth man and coxswain, steering the boat from the bow and carrying out the coach’s instructions while they’re on the water.

At 5-foot-four, Price, who will weigh 121 lbs. at the Olympic Games – the minimum allowed for the position that’s essentially dead weight – is constantly yelling, quarterbacking the team.

"Part of it is making the race exciting for the guys. Then you kind of forget, ‘My God this is killing me, this hurts so bad, I want to stop it hurts so bad,’" says Price, 32. "If it’s exciting and you’re kicking someone’s ass, it’s ramping up and you’re winning, what you thought hurt doesn’t hurt so much any more."

"Set in one, two, body angle -- NOW!" That’s a standard call, but Price says when things get exciting, the language gets colourful.

‘It’s pretty brash stuff’

"There’s quite a bit of swearing, oh yeah," he says, laughing. "Imagine being in a locker room. When guys are talking, they don’t say please. It’s pretty brash stuff."

The Canadian men's eight celebrate winning the 2007 world rowing championships by tossing coxswain Brian Price into the water. ((Uwe Lein/Canadian Press))

As the stroke, it’s Hamilton’s job to respond to Price’s calls, to set the rhythm and the pace for the rest of the team. Spracklen identifies the crew leader as the best rower in the world, though Hamilton deflects any praise.

"My job is easy because of all the power in the boat," Hamilton says. "This is definitely the most powerful boat Canadians will have seen in a long time.

"It all came together pretty quickly. Last year we put together a really good season, so all of a sudden a few good races come together and we’re world champions again."

The men’s eight crew that won the world championships the year before the Games hasn’t gone on to win Olympic gold since Germany did it in 1980. That’s seven Games since world champions have become Olympic champions.

Hamilton says "the curse" isn’t a concern.

Pressure is to stay sane

"We’re in as good a position as you can be in. Things are set up well and you just have to finish it off. The gold medal – that’s what it’s always been about. Even when we weren’t doing so hot we’ve never been a crew that’s just happy to be there. We’re there to win."

The biggest pressure facing the Canadian men’s eight in Beijing, Spracklen says, isn’t from an outside source. It’s personal, whether it’s about righting a wrong from four years ago or not. 

"The heaviest expectations probably come from ourselves," he says. "The biggest pressure is to stay sane."

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