Sunday 23 September 2012

London 2012

I know it is a little late to be writing about the London Olympics when they have been over for six weeks, but it has been a busy August and early September. I want to share a few things while they are still somewhat fresh in my mind so here it goes…

First and foremost let me start by saying what a privilege it was to be able to witness every stroke of every canoe-kayak race in London as the colour commentator for the Canadian Olympic Broadcast Consortium (which is really a fancy way of saying CTV/TSN/Sportsnet). It was even more of a privilege to be involved in some small way with the medal performances of guys I have watched grow up, followed their careers, and witnessed close up and first hand the enormous commitment they made for this Olympic moment. Being able to call the medal races of Adam Van Koeverden and Mark Oldershaw, club mates of mine at Burloak, was amazing.

The Olympics had already started when I got on the plane for London. Prior to leaving, I had settled into a routine for a few days of watching some of the very early morning Olympic broadcasts, heading to the canoe club to coach, getting on the water for a workout myself, and then watching more Olympics on TV until it was back to the canoe club again in the afternoon. The way the consortium did the coverage was pretty cool in that you had a host of different channels to choose from at any given time, giving you the opportunity to channel surf to the event that was most interesting. Sure beats what my poor American friends were subjected to with NBC. Anyway, early in the morning on August 2nd I found myself headed for the airport excited about what lay ahead but at the same time bummed by the fact that the August winds were just starting to pick up in Toronto and I was going to be missing some great conditions on the lake over the next couple of weeks.

If you haven’t flown to Europe from North America on a morning flight I really think you should. You’ll never want to take an evening flight again. It is so ridiculously easy compared to the usual afternoon or evening flight where you arrive the next morning bleary-eyed and with an internal clock so confused it takes a few full days to get back on track. My morning flight left at 8:55 a.m. and landed at Heathrow at 9:00 p.m. local time. I was in my hotel lying in bed watching BBC Olympic coverage by 11:00 p.m. and woke up in the morning feeling like I was at home. I felt no jetlag at all. In fact I felt like I was ready to race myself! I was off to the course that morning and with help from a nice volunteer (who happened to be a West Ham season ticket holder) got my accreditation problem sorted out and was into the venue and finding my way around the media area in no time.

With there still being two full days of rowing finals when I arrived I had no official capacity for a couple of days. I mostly just hung around the venue hoping to see some of the paddlers I know and watched the rowing finals, getting my own personal commentary from three-time Olympic Champion Marnie McBean while my broadcast partner Rob Faulds called the races with Barney Williams. It was awesome to see 30,000 people packed into huge stands on either side of the course roaring for crews on the water as they passed by. It was particularly impressive when the British crews were racing. As if spurred on and pulled down the course by the huge crowd they did extremely well, reaching the podium 5 times in the two days I was there and winning 3 golds. I can’t describe how emotionally powerful it is to hear 30,000 people in full voice singing God Save the Queen. The first two times I just stood there and soaked it in. The third time I actually had the presence of mind to record it on my Iphone so people back home could get an appreciation for what was like.

Over those first few days I got to get to know the crew I’d be working with which was good. Rob Faulds is a great professional and was able to give me a pretty good idea of what to expect when we hit the air with the first race. He is also a pretty funny guy and made me laugh a lot with some good stories and a sarcastic sense of humor that was right up my alley. Genevieve Beauchemin was there to do the mixed zone interviews with the athletes. She is also the Montreal bureau chief for CTV News. She was also pretty cool and not nearly as high maintenance as we teased her as being. Lastly, our on-site producer was Steve Paine, who does Blue Jay broadcasts back home and fit in really well. We quickly became an effective team and what I found interesting and enjoyed most is that being there as a team with them felt very much like it did to be at an international competition with my teammates when I was an athlete. The camaraderie was identical and I loved it.

In all honesty, the 6 days of canoe-kayak racing is a bit of a blur. We’d get to the course at about 6:30 a.m. every morning and immediately start working. For me that meant getting the day’s draws and transposing my research notes about the athletes to the draw sheet for each race. Sometimes I’d use the computer system to double-check some fact or other. We’d often consult with the consortium’s camera crew about which crews to focus on in each race, and I’d compare my notes with those of Maxim Boillard and Daniel Aucoin, who were doing the French Canadian broadcast. Then Rob and I would go over all the races before doing a preview on camera for the day’s broadcast. Before we knew it we were settling into the broadcast booth, putting on the headsets and checking in with our producer, Lucas Sheffield, in Toronto. Although I got to see every stroke of every race either through the monitor or on the course in front of me, it seems that when you are busy doing everything involved with calling every race you just don’t have time to absorb things as well as you can when you are just there as a spectator. I’ll have to watch some of the races again on video to really process the details of each race.

The lasting impressions I do have of 6 great days of racing are:

• The tremendous performance of Adam Van Koeverden. I’ve seen Adam training since day one and he never ceases to impress me. The paddling I saw him do this summer when he was training in Oakville was spectacular. It is really something when you can see someone who always paddles really well and be able to clearly discern that at a particular moment he is paddling even better. That was the impression I had of Adam all summer. He looked so incredibly efficient and his boat was moving so well underneath him I enjoyed every time he passed me on the river and I always stopped whatever coaching I was doing to watch him go by.

In London he was awesome in both the heat and the semi, going 3:26 in both races only 90 minutes apart and dominating the field. In the final he faced a big challenge as the guys he dominated in the qualifying rounds would all have regrouped and be prepared to change the results of the heat and semi. I remember Rob and I commenting on each of the eight finalists as the camera panned across the lanes before the start. It was probably the deepest, most decorated field ever in the Olympic K1 1000m final. In the end, Adam raced the same way he did in the heat and semi and the same way he did at the Worlds in 2011. He looked great at 500m but 2004 Olympic Champion Eirik Veras Larsen of Norway was still within touch. Adam just couldn’t break totally clear of Eirik and Eirik kept chipping away at Adam’s lead. In the last 200m as Eirik made his move, Adam got a little tight and heavy. Eiirk slipped by him and Adam had to be satisfied with a silver.

In my mind, Adam didn’t lose a gold, he won a silver. He had a great race but just got beaten by a guy who had an even better race. Eirik’s performance was amazing. The class and grace with which Adam received his silver was as impressive as his paddling and for those who missed it, Christie Blatchford wrote a great column in the National Post about it that brought a tear to my eye.

• Mark Oldershaw’s wonderful bronze in C1 1000m. Until London, Mark was the best Canadian paddler to never have won a medal at the Worlds or the Olympics. Here is a guy who has at times dominated World Cups but for one reason or another has never quite been able to put it all together at the Worlds or Olympics. After winning all the C1s at the Junior Worlds in 2001, he’s had a lot of tough luck. A hand injury not only kept him from paddling properly for almost 3 years but also left him in almost constant pain. Eventually a couple of surgeries got him back on track, but throughout the entire time he dealt with this injury I never heard him complaining about it at the club. In 2008, he made the Olympic team and raced C1 500m. In his heat he was winning and only had to take his last stroke to cross the finish line and advance directly to the final, but not knowing how close second place was he shot his boat. Unfortunately his boat shoot was early and while he was drifting across the line he was passed for first. This meant he lost the direct qualification to the final that came with first place and would have to go to the semis, where he got a tough draw, had a bad race and ended up coming 4th. There would be no final in Beijing for Mark.

In 2012, Mark seemed ready to totally leave those frustrations behind him and, like Adam, looked great everyday in training. His heat and semi in London were solid and he advanced comfortably to the final. In the final he did a great job of stepping up his race plan. Mark loves to get off well on the start, settle and let a couple of other guys lead for the first 500m and then reel them in and pass them in the last 500m. When he does it well at the World Cups he is on the podium and often wins. However the final at the Worlds is a faster race than at World Cups and he has always let the top group slip a little too far ahead in the first 500m at the Worlds, leaving himself with too much work to do in the second half. Though he charges hard he’s never been able to reel them in and reach the podium.

In London he knew he’d need to keep in closer contact with the leaders in the first 500m if he was going to reach the podium. As it turns out he executed his plan to perfection and stayed in touch with the leaders throughout the first 500m. When he began to make his move it was clear he was going to be able to pull himself into the top three if he could maintain his push for the entire second half. For a few moments in the last 150m he actually held second place, before being passed by 2004 Olympic Champion David Cal of Spain, who had a ridiculously fast last 250m. Mark ended up with a bronze behind silver medallist Cal and gold medal winner Sebatian Brendel of Germany, The expression on Mark’s face when he realized he’d reached the podium said it all and that photo made the covers of most Canadian newspapers the next day. What that race meant to Mark and to the entire Oldershaw family, who have done so much for Canadian paddling, is hard to describe. For me it was the highlight of the Olympics.

• Mark de Jonge of Halifax winning a bronze in the K1 200m. Here was a guy who broke a finger in the spring and was unable to train properly or race because of it. He never gave up and trained as best he could. Credit to Canoe-Kayak Canada, who gave him the opportunity to race for selection at the last set of National Team Trials in late June. By that time his injury was healed and he looked incredibly sharp, doing an unofficial world best time in winning his entry.

In London he arrived without the benefit of having had any international racing in his preparation. He looked great in his heat and semi and qualified for the final as a top seed. In the final it looked like he may not have had the best start but he hit the gas and blasted down the course to a bronze medal behind a dominant Ed McKeever of Britain. To me it was a pretty incredible accomplishment given the obstacle he’d had to overcome in the spring.

• The Australian K4. This is memorable to me for a couple of reasons. One, obviously, was the quality of the performance. They were absolutely dominant, leading almost wire to wire and reminding me of some of those legendary East German and Hungarian K4s from back when I was on the team. The other reason was that Canada’s and Burloak’s own Nathan Luce, who has moved on successfully to coaching gigs in the United States and now Australia, coached them. Great work, Nathan! Hope you continue to have fun and continue to produce more results like that down under!

• The Hungarian women winning K4. Anyone who knows me will be surprised that this race was a highlight for me. Canada didn’t qualify a crew (more on that and the state of Canadian paddling in another blog) so there was no Canadian crew to root for. What could possibly make this event so interesting? SUP. Stand up paddling. The Hungarian crew had a teammate of mine from Team Quickblade, Krisztina Fazekas (also known as Krisztina Zur), in their boat.

Krisztina is one of the nicest girls I’ve met in SUP and she left Hungary a few years ago when she married American Rami Zur. She has been racing K1 quite successfully for the Americans the last few years. She’s also been racing SUP and making quite an impression, particularly for someone with no big water experience. Unfortunately she was unable to secure her American citizenship in time to compete as an American and race K1 in London. America’s loss and Hungary’s gain. She went back to Hungary to try to get the K1 entry for their team. Hungary’s depth, of course, is incredible and she wasn’t quite able to do that, finishing just behind eventual London gold medallist Danuta Kozak, in the final Hungarian selection race at World Cup 2 in Duisburg. So, with no other route to the Olympics she challenged for a spot in the Hungarian K4. You’d think that it would be a no-brainer for her to be added to the Hungarian K4 given her medal winning performances in international races he last few years in K1. However I have a strong suspicion it wasn’t that easy. Hungarians are pretty proud of their canoe-kayak history. Their success over the years has been incredible. They export coaches all over the world. I have a hard time believing there were no politics for Krisztina to overcome to make that K4. I imagine there were some that felt that if she’d turned her back on Hungary and left for the United States she should no longer be welcome in the Hungarian program. Krisztina persevered and wiser minds prevailed and she was selected to the K4. Hungary managed to win the K4 in convincing fashion taking back the Olympic title from the Germans who had won in Beijing. Adding Krisztina to the crew certainly strengthened it and she had a huge smile on her face when I saw her in the mixed zone with her medal around her neck.

• Josefa Idem. Before I write anything more, understand that this woman won a bronze medal in K2 at the same Olympics I medalled at – 1984! After an absolutely incredible career spanning 7 Olympics and including a K1 bronze in 96, gold in 2000 and silvers in 2004 and 2008 at age 47 she was back for more in her eighth games. Unreal. Could she possibly continue her medal streak?

In the semi final in K1 500m Rob and I had her dead and buried after 150m. She was so far back I honestly didn’t believe she could claw her way back into a top three spot. Not against the field she faced in her semi. Then the magic occurred. As if out of nowhere she killed it in her last 250m and charged past the field to win her semi and qualify for the final. Despite everyone being well aware of her historic career, a stunned silence seemed to fall over Eton-Dorney as people tried to process what they had just witnessed. A comeback like that in 500m at any age is remarkable, but at 47 years old? That stretches the limits of the imagination.

Though Danute Kozak of Hungary won the final in dominant fashion, I think that everyone, including probably the Hungarians themselves, were at some level pulling for Idem in the final. She came up a little short in the end, finishing a very competitive and close 5th, but she didn’t disappoint anyone in her last Olympics, providing more that just a glimpse of the magic that fueled such a remarkable career.

• The Russian K2 200m. When I first started racing internationally for Canada in 1980 there was a Soviet K2 that was at an entirely different level that the rest of the world. Vladimir Parfenovich and Sergei Chukrai not only dominated K2 but also looked like they were from another planet doing it. They made it look easy. Their smooth, fluid transmission of power made their K2 sit higher and more stable in the water at speed than any other boat. They could have the fastest stroke rate and quickest start in a 500m race and make it look like they were taking it easy. They were so strong yet so skilled it was beautiful to watch, even to a canoe paddler!

In London, Russia’s Yuri Postrigay and Alexander Dyanchenko evoked memories of one of history’s greatest ever K2s, not only by winning the K2 200m by such a clear margin but by paddling so impressively well. The combination of speed, power and artistry they displayed was breathtaking and immediately brought images of Parfenovich and Chukrai to mind. At an event in which all the 200m races were, as one would expect, extremely tight, their race was a demolition in comparison. It left me with the feeling that if they wanted to they could have gone faster. What an emphatic performance to end the competition with!

When it was all said and done I sat there for a few moments, taking in the scene around me at the venue and thinking of the 6 fantastic days of racing I had been so privileged to witness. It was hard to believe it was over. In a few days they would start taking down the stands, the flags and the banners until Eton-Dorney would be little more than a 2400m long water filled ditch running through prime sheep grazing land. We left the venue for the last time and headed back to the hotel. We had the opportunity to attend a small reception hosted by Canoe-Kayak Canada that afternoon at a hotel in nearby Slough, and it was fun to see the athletes and meet their families. Steve, Genevieve and I headed into the city to Canada House that night for a few pints in honour of Mark de Jonge’s bronze, just as we had a few days earlier for Adam and Mark. These Canada house receptions were fun times to witness but really a moment for the athletes on the Canadian Olympic team. By midnight I was back at the Crowne Plaza Heathrow and climbing into bed.

The next day, the Sunday of the closing ceremonies, I slept in, then packed, said goodbye to my broadcast colleagues and left to meet up with my buddies Toby Collins and his brother Tracy, Mike Roche, and Justin DeBlase and his cousin Jimmy who had a house basically across the road from Wembley Stadium. Suddenly, the Olympics seemed far away. Toby and I ventured across town on the tube to hook up with my sister, Susan, who I see far too rarely, and we enjoyed dinner and a few pints at her local. We watched the closing ceremonies in a pub that night and the next day we wandered about London seeing the Imperial War Museum, Upton Park (home of mighty West Ham United) and whatever else we could see in one day. The following day I was on a plane headed home.

Since I’ve come home people have asked me what events I saw and sound disappointed when I tell them that although I had accreditation that would get me into every venue I only saw the events at Eton-Dorney. Yes, I missed seeing Mo Farrah win his second gold, I missed the night of magic at the main stadium when Farrah, Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford won 3 golds for Britain in 40 minutes in athletics, and of course I missed the incredible Usain Bolt who is an Olympic legend despite what IOC President Jacques Rogge says. Our accommodation was just too far away and our work started too early each day to make getting out to events very feasible. I watched those events on the BBC like everyone else. Yet I saw what I wanted to see most, did my job, and watched my friends and countrymen go and do theirs. It was more than enough for me. It was an awesome experience that will stay etched in my memory for a long time. I’d love to have opportunity to do it again in Rio in 2016!