Summer Sports·In Depth

What went wrong for Canada's men's heavyweight rowers in Rio

As the dust continues to settle after a disastrous Olympics for Canada's men's rowing team at Rio 2016, athletes and Rowing Canada officials are combing through the last four years to figure out exactly how things took a turn for the worse.

Controversial decisions, lack of leadership cited by current, former athletes

The Canadian men's coxless four team of, right to left, Kai Langerfeld, Conlin McCabe, Tim Schrijver and Will Crothers reacts after finishing sixth at the Rio Olympics, where Canada came away with just one medal. (Kevin Light/CBC)

As the dust continues to settle after a disastrous Olympics for Canada's men's rowing team at Rio 2016, athletes and Rowing Canada officials are combing through the last four years to figure out exactly what went wrong.

In the past quadrennial, Own the Podium gave Rowing Canada more money than any of Canada's other summer sports programs — more than $17 million. All that cash translated to just one medal — a silver in the women's lightweight double sculls.

There were also big changes for the men's heavyweight program. From parting ways with longtime coach Mike Spracklen, to scrapping the successful men's eight boat in favour of a fours and a quadruple sculls, the end goal was to win more medals.

Yet the men's heavyweight team combined for no world championship medals, and managed only sixth- and eighth-place finishes in Rio. The team did, however, win a handful of medals at various World Cup events.

The Canadian men's eight won silver at the 2012 Games in London and gold at Beijing 2008. The decision to ditch it in favour of the fours and the quad will be the single most scrutinized decision for why Canada didn't live up to its high expectations. But both current and former athletes say it was more than just that. A series of ensuing changes ultimately set these two new teams up for failure.

"I arrived in the middle of the changes, and this was not what I expected," says Julien Bahain, who rowed on Canada's quad sculls team in Rio and came to the Canadian program in 2014 from France, where he won bronze at Beijing 2008.

"It was the same guys, but doing different things. Doing things like they didn't know what they were doing."

And to some former athletes watching from the outside, it was heartbreaking.

"I kind of feel like what we did during that time, the model wasn't broken," says two-time Olympic medallist Jake Wetzel, who retired after the 2008 Olympics. "Why would we rip everything up and start fresh?

"In this new era, they just basically tried to do away with any signs of [Spracklen]. It just wasn't just the same atmosphere in the camps."

Where science meets spirit

One of the recurring themes included troubles within the men's training camps, specifically with the coaching philosophies of Martin McElroy — a gold medal-winning coach for Great Britain's eights team at Sydney 2000, who was brought on as Spracklen's successor.

"There are good things about Martin for sure. I actually got better, purely physically speaking. But at the same time I got less results on the water," Bahain says, adding McElroy's philosophy put emphasis on gym training, and not on the water.

At the end of the day, Bahain says the team just didn't have the right guys in place to succeed. While the team was full of capable rowers, transitioning from one rowing discipline to another — particularly from sweeping to sculling — isn't an easy switch in a four-year window.

Bahain also says there was little flexibility in the training schedule. He remembers one instance where the team was scheduled to row on the water in the morning then train on the rowing machines in the afternoon. But when foggy weather scrapped the morning session, the team turned to the machines instead.

"It was awesome weather in the afternoon, but we went [on the rowing machines again] because it's what was on the program. So we [did a full day on machines]," Bahain says.

Adam Kreek, a gold medallist on the men's eight in 2008, says the 2016 team was actually setting Canadian records on the rowing machines. Though he felt they had the fitness level to produce medals, they didn't have the aggression needed to produce results on the water.

"They had really good bodies," Kreek says. "You look at the fitness scores of some of these athletes, they're mind-blowing. So we had the bodies, but we weren't able to activate when the chips came down."

They also seemed vulnerable in rough water conditions, which is what the team encountered in Rio. 

Smaller training groups

Another noticeable change in philosophy around the men's camp was scaling back the number of athletes training with the men's heavyweight team.

In the past, camps were comprised of a couple dozen athletes all vying for a spot on the team, and pushing one another in the process — a staple of the Spracklen era.

But McElroy thought differently, instead opting for a camp of nine men: four for each boat, and one spare. Tim Schrijver was sidelined with an injury at one point, bringing the camp down to eight.

"So what happened," says Wetzel, "was they picked their people early on and said, 'these are the ones we're going to go with and we're going to put more resources into these groups.'  It took away the really competitive training environment. 

"Basically, everything that happened when Rowing Canada was successful, they pursued a strategy that was the opposite."

"It was a very low-tech approach that we had before, where it was just a very strong athlete-driven training environment, to one that was really dominated by the coaches."

Rowing Canada high performance director Peter Cookson says the decision to have a nine-man camp was McElroy's alone. And though it was supported by Rowing Canada, Cookson admits they should have had more guys at camp.

"I think knowing what we do now, in hindsight, we need to have greater numbers than we do now going into the next quadrennial.

"If there's an injury, or an illness, or someone's performance starts to drop off, we have a different group of athletes who can step in if need be," Cookson says, acknowledging that having more guys in camp would also foster competition to push other teammates to be better.

'Line in the sand'

A lot needs to change, Bahain says, in order to keep him from leaving the team, including creating a more competitive, athlete-centric training environment.

"I think this is why I'm talking. I'm not here to be the troublemaker. I'm here because I love what I do and I think I could go to Tokyo. But what's going to stop me from doing it is I'm not enjoying myself in this environment," Bahain says.

For Wetzel, though, it's about leadership.

"There's an inertia within management, within the upper levels of Rowing Canada, that in a way, they shouldn't keep their jobs," Wetzel says, placing the blame on Cookson and McElroy.

"It really rests on Rowing Canada's shoulders for the moves they made and the people they hired. They just hired the wrong people."

Kreek also cites the need for strong leadership, though he acknowledges it's easy to be an armchair critic.

"Athletes are successful because of their coaches, and athletes fail because of their coaches," Kreek says. 

"There needs to be an element of honour to the people who are actually playing the game. Cookson drew a line in the sand and made a decision, and he needs to be honoured for his courage. But he also needs to be held accountable for the results of his strategy."

Rowing Canada is in the midst of a review — the organization's Annual Meeting takes place Thursday — where Cookson says everything, including his job, will be up for debate. 

"I think we're all quite gutted by the performances," he says. "But part of that is we go through the review and truly understand what happened."


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