I wrote this on the plane home from London, it’s pretty long and I wasn’t sure if I was going to put it on here, but why not!
Oh my, oh my, what a ride this has been. As I settle down into my seat on one of Air Canada’s finest Boeing 777’s, it feels like it’s the first time in over a week since I’ve really sat down at all. Since winning a bronze medal last Wednesday my life has been a non stop whirlwind of events that has been incredibly exciting and made me prouder than ever to be Canadian. I’m going to record my Olympic experience here so I actually can remember it in the future, and perhaps some of you will be interested as well.
I’ll start from the beginning. I was born on February 7th , 1983 to two loving parents living on Burlington Beach… No, that’s too far back, my bio covers that, as well as many dusty photo albums in my parents basement. Fast-forward 29 years, and I’m on my way to London, chasing a dream that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. We did our preparation camp in France and decided to stay there and miss the Opening Ceremonies, keeping our focus on our race preparation rather than the Games themselves. It was important for me to not get too wrapped up in the Olympics; they are such a massive spectacle that they can be overwhelming if you’re not careful. The way I looked at it was like I was an actor in a play. The Olympics were the big show, but I only had one part to play in one act of the show. My part was my race, which is what I’m good at and what I have been practicing for most of my life. So while it was going to be the biggest race of my life, and part of the biggest show on earth, it was still just a canoe race. Focusing on that made it much more manageable. I watched the occasional event on TV and followed my Canadian teammates when I could, but for the most part I was back stage, practicing my lines so to speak, doing everything I could to perfect my part. I’m not sure why I used an acting analogy, having never been on stage myself, but the Olympic Games aren’t something that athletes deal with everyday, so I guess that’s just how I tried to put it into perspective for myself.
I had a lot of help perfecting my part. All the guys on the Canadian Canoe Team were amazing this summer helping me train, especially Ben Russell, Jamie Andison, Paul Bryant, Roland Varga, Ian Mortimer, Andrew Russell and Gabriel Beauchesne-Sevigny. I honestly couldn’t have done it without those guys, and a big part of my medal belongs to them. In France I was lucky to have Gab come and train with me in the final weeks leading up to London, and his help was invaluable. The last 6 years Gab, Andrew and I have trained, raced and lived together at every competition and training camp all over the world. It was great to have them with me for my final preparation, and to be honest when I left for London and they headed off for a well deserved Spanish vacation, I was pretty emotional and a little scared to be going to a regatta without them! Luckily I also had some great friends and teammates on the Olympic Team. Adam van Koeverden, like Gab and Andrew, is another great friend I have been through the trenches with, and have been training with longer than anyone. While we don’t actually do much training together on the water, we are almost always on the water at the same time, doing the same workouts, as well as spending countless hours in the gym, pool, ski trails and running trails. He is the definition of a champion, and his work ethic and attitude is inspirational and just plain impressive to everyone around him. With Adam leading the team, we arrived in London very excited and ready to go.
The excitement grew when we arrived to our satellite village at the beautiful Royal Holloway College outside of London. The place was done up with all the Olympic flags and signs (and security) that makes multi-sport games so unique. 24 hour cafeteria, games room, free laundry were all there, along with all our Team Canada gear waiting for us on our beds. We were like kids on Christmas, running around trying on our clothes, with many a quote from Ryan and Hugues along the lines of “this is the nicest shirt/hat/jacket I’ve ever had”. And they were nice; I think H.B.C. did a great job. Trying on those clothes and seeing Canada written across our chests made us all proud to be representing our country.
Knowing we had to get some of this excitement out of our system so we could re focus on our races, we took a day off training to head into London. We headed to the Oakley Safehouse, which was basically Oakley’s headquarters during the games where athletes who use their product could go to not only get some custom made new glasses to race in, but also dig in to some amazing food and hang out with some really cool people. Oakley Canada was really awesome to our whole team and I’d like to thank them for being such an awesome sponsor. Great product and amazing customer/athlete service really put them ahead of the game. They also let my girlfriend Annamay in so I could hang out with her, which was great. Seeing her made me able to forget about racing for a while and just enjoy a nice afternoon in London. She’s been a huge support to me and been behind me no matter what this year, even when her own Olympic journey came to an end, which I know has been tough. So a big thank you to her as well!
After a great day in London, it was back to training the next day, with our first glimpse of the Eton Dorney race course. We had been there last September for a test event, and everything looked pretty much the same, except for the massive stands for the last 300m on both sides of the course! They were huge, and it was awesome. Another awesome thing about racing there is that Windsor Castle is on a hill not too far away, looking down on the course. With all the brightly coloured flags and big white tents, it felt like a medieval tournament was going on and we were the knights arriving to take part. As if the Olympics weren’t exciting enough! So everyday driving into the venue I would see the castle and the tents and imagine I was in medieval times, ready to do battle. Once it was time to paddle though I would make sure I was focused on my training. Just before a competition it’s not so much training as preparation and just trying to feel good. The hard work is long behind you and it’s all about feeling sharp and going over your race plan again and again. With all the excitement going on I made sure I was very focused on the water, and I was feeling really good about how I was moving the boat, and feeling fit and ready to go physically and mentally. After a few days training around the rowing regatta, we finally got to move in to the real boat tents, and all of the sudden it was the night before the regatta. I was feeling surprisingly calm, and for a moment was worried that I wasn’t nervous enough, but I think I realized that I had done everything I possibly could to get ready for this race, and I knew exactly what I needed to do. It gave me confidence, and that feeling that I had nothing to lose. I was going to race my heart out and give it everything I had, and the rest was going to take care of itself. That being said, of course there was some nervousness, I think I packed my bag three times, and spent entirely too long deciding which pair of identical pants I would race in. I went to bed, read a little bit, and actually fell asleep pretty quickly.
I woke up before my alarm and was out of bed right away. I was excited to race, more than I had been in a long time. It was a really good feeling! I knew my heat was going to be interesting because everyone would advance to the semi finals so it wouldn’t be too hard, but people would want to get the best seeding possible without spending too much energy. I did a toned down version of my race plan, planning to be in the top 3, and win it if it didn’t take too much energy. I was feeling good half way through the race when David Cal from Spain made a strong push and seemed like he was ready to fight for it. I decided it wasn’t worth it to race him and just maintained my second place. After a good cool down I went back to our tent and it was pretty much already time to go race again, Adam was already getting ready to go back out on the water. For some reason, I guess for TV maybe, they put the heats and semis only an hour apart, different from every other international competition we do. I was prepared for it though and didn’t let it bother me. It felt like I was back at WOD’s or Nationals, rushing from one race to another with hardly time to even sit down in between. I approached my semi final with the same plan that I would for a final, knowing that there were lots of good guys in it ready to pounce if I didn’t bring my A game. I felt solid the whole way and finished 2nd again, this time to long time training partner Mathieu Goubel of France. I was in the Olympic final! After missing out in Beijing, this was an important step for me, and I admit I felt a pretty big sense of relief after that race. I knew I should be in the final and would have been disappointed if I had missed out again. Adam was also looking in fine form, winning his heat and semi, so it was a good day at the office for Canada.
Sleep that night came easily again, two races that close together with so much mental focus put into them is tiring. We had a day off racing between the semis and the final, so it was back to the course for a light paddle, then a good day of rest before the main event. Bernie took good care of our bodies, just like he has for the past 10 years. He is the best massage therapist around and by far the best person to have around the team at a Regatta. Adam and I also took a walk around Royal Holloway college, through the woods and around the old buildings, just to take our minds off of racing a bit. We also played some giant Jenga and connect four, just to get out of our rooms. Sitting in your room waiting to race can be one of the worst things you can do, so we tried to keep busy. My pre race day dinner was sandwiches, if I’m remembering properly, just regular meat and cheese and vegetables on bread. Not sure why I’m writing that down but people do ask! I just wanted something simple that I was used to, that wasn’t too heavy.
The night before my final I was a little bit nervous, but again I was really excited to race. I’d been getting so many messages since making the final, and they had all made me so happy, and so proud to be representing Canada, that I was eager to get out there. I also took a moment to tell myself to enjoy every moment of the next day no matter what happened. I woke up on race day ready to rock once again, met Adam and my dad for breakfast like we had been doing everyday, and took my coffee on the bus with some music on my iPod to pass the 30 minute ride to the course. Not much was said between the three of us, but there was a sense that everything was in place, that everything had been done, and we were ready to go. I couldn’t ask for anything more going into a race. It was cloudy and threatening to rain a bit, but I was ready for anything. I had a great warm up, felt pretty good and went through my routine. Coming down the course I saw the Cheema war canoe paddling by and was reminded of home, which put a big smile on my face. This was just like any other race! I also was treated to Jon Pike’s 50-foot head being interviewed on the big screen, actually speaking more clearly than I’ve ever heard him.
Once I was off the water I went back to our tent for a short rest before heading back out to race. The Olympics are different than any other regatta in the sense of how quiet everything is. We have a way smaller team than usual, and only a couple of us were racing that day. It can be very lonely sometimes, but on that morning it gave me a complete sense of calm. I spent 10 minutes relaxing in the tent before it was time to go, it was finally time to go on the water for my Olympic final! My dad was getting Adam ready to go on the water, so I had a solo walk from our tent over to where our boats were stored. I put in my headphones and put on the Chariots of Fire theme song, and marched out of the tent to the boats. I walked slowly. I enjoyed every step. I looked down the course and took it all in. It was incredible.
I’ll never forget that moment, and for me it is a stronger memory than winning the bronze itself.
I got to the boat tent just at the time when my music went to the next song, and then it was time for some fun. While Chariots of Fire was very inspirational, it didn’t have a fast enough beat to really get me ready to go. Nicki Minaj started me off with some faster beats, and I was warming up like no one was watching. Carly Rae Jepson then came on and I got really pumped up and ready to go, jumping around and perhaps even dancing a little bit, paddle in hand. I’ve gotten some heat from my friends about my music selection before races; it baffles Adam who listens to a lot harder pump up stuff. But for me it’s all about having fun and making me smile. I don’t go on the water wanting to kill my competitors; I’m not going to war. I’m at a canoe regatta, doing what I love to do, having the time of my life. When I’m on the start line and in the race, there is plenty of competitiveness. Trust me, I’m doing everything I can to win. But until I’m on that start line, I like to keep the mood light. So I see nothing wrong with using some top 40 pop hits to help me feel that way.
Finally Call Me Maybe came to an end and it was time to get on the water. My dad met me and we carried my boat down, through boat control and to the dock. He didn’t say a lot, at this point all the work had been done. He just told me to go fast, move the boat like I know how to, and reaffirmed that I could indeed do this. It was all I needed, and I was pushing off and heading up the lake for the start line. I did my pre race warm up drills, and was feeling confident and ready to go. I was nervous for sure, but I knew that was a good thing and that the nerves would disappear as soon as the gun went. The paddle up seemed really short, and before I knew it I was circling above the start line with 7 other guys. I looked at them all, knowing that I’d beaten them all before, and that they had all beaten me. It was going to be a great race and I was pumped to be in it. That’s when I heard over the loudspeaker, Adam van Koeverden, silver. I knew I was probably going to hear how he did, but had been trying very hard to focus on my own race and warm up. I hadn’t even heard who won, but when they said his name my mind caught it I guess. I knew he wanted to win, but also knew that silver was an amazing accomplishment for him, especially against such a strong field of guys. I thought to myself that if he could get a medal, so could I, and maybe I could even do one better. We had done almost all of the same training the last four years, our whole lives really, so if he could get on the podium, why not me.
The 5 and 3 minute to start warnings came quickly, and I started approaching the starting line. I reached down and rubbed the Oldershaw sticker on my boat for good luck. I hadn’t planned to do this or thought about it before hand, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. They announced the lane assignments as the camera boat drifted across the front of our lanes. Hearing your name followed by Canada is always a big rush, no matter how many times you hear it. A few slaps to my face and legs and it was into the starting blocks. The starter had been very fast all regatta so I was ready to go as soon as the nose of my boat was in the gate. The nerves were now in full force and I just wanted the race to start.
Ready. Set. Go!
In fact it’s more like a beep, not the word go, but that’s what went through my head. GO! GO! GO! And I was off. I had a good first few strokes and was out where I needed to be. I found my travelling speed, making sure to not slow down too much. Sebastien Brendl of Germany and Mathieu Goubel of France were just to my left, and they took it out really fast. I knew that was their race plan, so it didn’t faze me, I stayed in my own boat and kept my own pace, knowing that if I was going to beat them, it was going to be in the last 250m. All I was thinking about the first half of the race was moving the boat, every stroke was just trying to be as efficient as possible, and I was able to stay in touch with the leading guys. I remember being quite calm, my body almost on autopilot, years of training taking over. After around 400m I was starting to feel it. Even though I was pacing myself, it was a fast race and I knew I needed to break through the first wall of pain or I was going to get too far behind. It was coming up to half way and I remember having a moment of doubt, just for a split second, about whether I could do it or not. At that point of the race your body is already telling you to stop, it wants to rest or at least take it easy. Funny things go through your head sometimes in races, and I remember saying to myself, “my mom raised me to be tough, not to quit when it got hard”. And that’s all it took, I knew I had to go, there was no holding back now, this was what I’d been training for my whole life. This was the make it or break it moment. I put everything out of my mind and just went for it. I picked up my stroke rate and started to make up ground on the field. I knew it was going to take a while, so I just kept pushing and pushing. With about 350m left the grand stands started, and I could hear the roar of the crowd pushing me on. It wasn’t a clear sound, kind of just like background noise, completely surrounding me. I was also starting to go a little bit blind. It’s not a dark blindness, more like a white haze; all I could see was the nose of my boat, and movement to either side. I could tell that Brendl was still ahead of me, but not much beyond that. The last 200m were extremely hard, I was literally just trying to take as many strokes as I could and not drop the paddle. David Cal of Spain came up on the right of me, somehow taking what seemed like twice as many strokes as me. I tried desperately to fight him off and then stay with him, but my body would simply not move that fast. The last 50 m I had no idea where I was except that two guys were ahead of me and I couldn’t see where anyone else was. As I crossed the finish line I immediately looked left, half expecting to see 4 more guys already across the line, but there were none! The shock of it hit me fast; I couldn’t believe I’d just won a medal at the Olympic Games. I’ve had a lot of comments about my expression as I crossed the line, and all I can say is that I really didn’t know how to react, it was literally a dream come true. It’s not that I wasn’t expecting to do well. I went into the race trying to win and knowing I was as good as any of them on any given day. It wasn’t the shock of coming third in the race that affected me; I’d come third, even won against those guys before. It was coming third at the Olympic Games that put that look on my face when I crossed the finish line.
I can say there was no pressure on me going into London, but of course there was. I think I did a good job of dealing with it, to be honest I kind of just forgot about it all and tried to have fun. But it was there, and when I finished my race it was all released. It was gone, just like that.
All those years of close calls, of 4ths and 5ths and not quite enough. Missing out on the final in Beijing by a fraction of a second. A long line of Canadian success in C1 that I always felt I hadn’t quite lived up to. Going to World Championships where I was the only Canadian canoeist to not get a medal. People back home telling me that this was my year. Three generations of my family competing at the Olympics, but still without that elusive medal. A best friend with 4 Olympic medals, the best Canadian paddler of all time. Representing an amazing Canadian Canoe Team that helped me train all year, knowing that I was their chance at a medal. Winning the Junior Worlds but never quite finding the same magic at the senior level. Having an injury that held me back and made me question if I would ever go to the Olympics at all.
All these things were in my mind at one time or another, and they were as hard as any physical barrier to overcome, much harder in fact. But looking back, they were the things that made me stronger. They were the things that made me push that much harder in the second half of my race, made me keep going even though I had no idea if I was 3rd or 8th going into the finish line. I haven’t had the perfect career that I dreamed about when I was a little kid, but the harder the road the more rewarding it is getting to the finish. A good friend of mine wrote a song called Stones on the Road. “The roads got stones, to trip up your toes, if it goes down hill that’s how it goes, the dust it blows, and you may get cold, and if you can take it just goes to show.”
There are always things that are going to hold you back, get in your way, trip you up. But if you keep on going, get back up no matter what, the road will smooth out eventually, and you’ll be that much better for it.
I think that’s where I’ll end things. The podium was AWESOME, but I’ll leave that for another time. Thanks for reading if you got this far!