In the end, the 20-plus letters of support from former champions and current team members didn’t matter. Neither did his multiple Olympic accomplishments, including the silver medal won by the Canadian men’s eight crew at Eton Dorney this summer.
With a simple statement on its website, Rowing Canada announced Mike Spracklen, the 75-year-old, larger-than-life British rowing coach, would not be back for the coming season, which means he will not be leading the men’s eights in preparations for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Technically, Spracklen was told his contract was not being renewed. Realistically, it was a convenient opportunity for Rowing Canada to part ways with a coach whose old-school tactics and demanding nature had been called into question.
At the heart of the matter was the insistence by pairs’ rowers David Calder and Scott Frandsen that Spracklen pushes his athletes to the brink of tolerance and that he had created a “culture of fear” with “destructive tactics.” Calder and Frandsen, who applauded Spracklen’s departure on a CBC.ca blog, had worked with Spracklen at the Elk Lake facility in Victoria before opting for a different coach, Terry Paul.
Ironically, Calder and Frandsen won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics having spent part of their training with Spracklen. This past summer at the London Olympics, Calder and Frandsen finished last in their final and were at a loss to explain why.
“Calder and Frandsen felt they weren’t getting a fair shake in Mike’s program,” said Brian Price, the men’s eight coxswain and a gold and silver Olympic medalist. “They didn’t want to train with him and they didn’t want anyone else to be coached by Mike. They chose to try and take down the Victoria centre. It caused a humongous rift. Mike was pictured as a divisive character when he’s probably the greatest team builder in this country.”
Other members of the men’s eight were keen to defend Spracklen. They, along with Olympic champion Silken Laumann, penned and voiced their support knowing Spracklen’s contract was soon to expire. What irked them was how he was allowed to walk away despite fashioning one of the most successful records in rowing history.
“When I heard the news, I just started to cry; letting Mike go feels so wrong,” Laumann said in a statement. “This time, the good guy really did lose.”
“It’s pretty disappointing,” said Andrew Byrnes, a gold and silver Olympic medalist in the eight. “I really think Rowing Canada is making a bad decision. The majority of the guys at the men’s centre (in Victoria) have the utmost respect for Mike. Someone has to say it’s not a tidal wave (of ill will).” As for Calder and Frandsen, Byrnes said, “They turned on him very quickly.”
Spracklen was asked about his status soon after the Olympic rowing competition ended in Eton Dorney, where Canada won just two medals, the other silver coming in the women’s eights. Asked why he hadn’t been offered a new contract, he said of his Rowing Canada bosses: “They’re scheming.” Contacted at his Victoria home late last month, Spracklen said there was nothing new and declined to make any comment. “Enough has been said,” he remarked.
On Tuesday, it was left to the men’s eight to underline just how much Spracklen meant to each of them, in good times and bad.
“Rowing Canada said it wants to win more medals, and they’re letting go of the guy who delivered half their medals?” asked Conlin McCabe, a member of the London crew. “It’s a shame. At the end of the day, Mike wanted us to win. He shared our dreams and goals.”
“There were 25 letters sent (to Rowing Canada) within 24 hours,” Price added. “They all said, ‘Yes, he was very hard. Yes, at points I wanted to quit. But I’m a better person because of it.’ Apparently we were all wrong. I’m pretty shocked, saddened and devastated by this. He basically forced and willed us to keep training. He was the driving force of that silver medal.”
Rowing Canada will name Spracklen’s replacement at a later date.