Rosie MacLennan and her unprecedented pursuit of a gold-medal 3-peat

As the only Canadian Summer Olympian to win back-to-back gold medals, trampolinist Rosie MacLennan is restrained about the opportunity to win a third in Tokyo. "It's not the centre of my focus," she says. "I know it's an opportunity that's there, but I've never gone into a competition pursuing gold."

History has shown that just defending a gold medal is difficult enough

(Getty Images/Illustration by Alexis Allison, CBC Sports)

With just one member, it's an exclusive club to say the least.

Thousands of Canadian athletes have competed at the Summer Olympics since Canada first began sending teams in 1904. But only one athlete — trampolinist Rosie MacLennan — has been able to win a gold medal in two consecutive Games in the same event. (Rowers Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle won back-to-back gold medals in 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta, but in different events.)

These Olympics in Tokyo will be the 32-year-old MacLennan's fourth and offer a chance for her to win an unprecedented third straight gold medal.

"It's not the centre of my focus. I know it's an opportunity that's there, but I've never gone into a competition pursuing gold," MacLennan says. "I go into every competition with the intention to do the best that I can on that day and see where it lands me.

"Thinking about outcomes and results puts so much emphasis on things that are out of your control. And when I go into competition, I'm always constantly just trying to focus on what I can control. And that's my attitude."

It's a formula that has proved to be successful. Since bursting on the international trampoline stage in 2006, MacLennan has won almost everywhere she has competed, including multiple world championships and gold at two consecutive Pan Am Games. 

WATCH | MacLennan and coach have reached heights beyond wildest dreams:

Together, Rosie MacLennan and her coach Dave Ross have reached heights beyond her wildest dreams

4 months ago
The two-time Olympic gold medallist believes there is no way she would be where she is today without her longtime coach. Will Tokyo bring a third consecutive Olympic medal? 2:03

She has managed to make a very difficult sport look easy. But there have been hurdles.

She has overcome serious injuries, including multiple concussions and in 2019, a broken ankle. But she has never stopped innovating and striving to maintain her dominance over the sport and continue to be the best.

"The sport's always evolving. There's more athletes trying more difficulty. There's more athletes jumping higher. There's more athletes who are performing those skills with better execution,"  MacLennan says.

MacLennan won't be the only Canadian athlete with an opportunity to defend gold in Rio. Swimmer Penny Oleksiak and wrestler Erica Weibe will also have a chance to become part of Canadian sports history.

But actually climbing to the top of the podium for a second time won't be easy.

Just ask Canadian wrestler Carol Huynh, who unexpectedly captured gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Huynh says she struggled at times with the idea of trying to recapture that same success at the 2012 Games in London.

"There definitely was a lot of pressure, especially compared to the first one," says Huynh, now retired at age 40. "In 2008, nobody knew about me. There was no pressure, really."

Carol Huynh celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women's 48kg freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Getty Images)

Felt target on her back

Even though she continued to be successful after Beijing, Huynh says she always felt like there was a target on her back and that people were just waiting for her to fail. As the 2012 Games approached, she realized that mentality would not lead to success on the mat.

"I wasn't doing well with that kind of perspective, putting the weight of the world on my shoulders and a big bull's-eye on my back," Huynh says. "I think taking the perspective I had going into Beijing of just doing my best really helped to ease the pressure of going in as the defending Olympic champion."

In the end, Huynh was unable to defend her gold, but did manage to win a bronze medal. She often watches the match she lost in London to a Japanese wrestler who she says "was better than me on that day.

"I was disappointed, but it was more I was disappointed in my performance. I wasn't disappointed in not winning a gold medal," she says.

It's really hard to be a consistent top performer over a long span. It's really difficult.- Wrestler Carol Huynh

Huynh is now an elite coach, working with some of Canada's top wrestlers. The experience has taught her to appreciate what she accomplished, even if it wasn't the two gold medals she wanted.

"It's really hard to be a consistent top performer over a long span. It's really difficult."

High jumper Derek Drouin won gold for Canada at the 2016 Games in Rio, but in the years since he has battled a litany of injuries that have prevented him from competing consistently at a high level. Those injuries finally caught up with Drouin last month as he was unable to compete at the Canadian track and field Olympic trials, ending his pursuit for a spot in Tokyo.

Derek Drouin won gold in high jump at the Rio Olympics, but injuries have prevented him from defending it in Tokyo. (Getty Images)

New mentality among Canadian athletes

Despite not being able to defend his gold medal this summer, Drouin says Canadians should expect a lot more gold in this country's future. He points to a new mentality evolving among Canadian athletes, one focused on being on the top of the podium.

"Even in just the four years between London and Rio, that culture had really changed," the Sarnia-born 31-year-old says. "I noticed it very immediately within my own track team, but also it seemed like a very different vibe, a very different feeling, a very different motivation among the whole team Canada, the entire Olympic team. 

"I don't hear much of, 'oh, I'm just happy to be here, this is just my first Games and things like that.' People genuinely believe that they're capable of winning and they're capable of extraordinary things."

As for MacLennan, who looks to add another chapter to her remarkable story this summer, she has shown Canadian athletes that sustained excellence on the global stage is achievable. That winning a gold medal — even three in a row — is possible.

"Nobody can take away what I ve been able to do. That is going to be part of my story for the rest of my life no matter what happens in Tokyo."


Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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