Once when three top Canadian Olympians – Adam van Koeverden, Simon Whitfield and Kyle Shewfelt – were asked about the best sort of support an athlete could get from a parent, they all said with one voice: “They left us alone.”
Not all the time, however. There were some, such as Beata Bokrossy, van Koeverden’s mother, who took them to 6 a.m. practices, who led them to the sport in the first place, who were there when needed most.
This weekend, van Koeverden will lead a 35-member Canadian team to the world canoe-kayak championships in Szeged, Hungary, an Olympic qualifying event.
Van Koeverden is a three-time Olympic medalist (gold in the K-1 500 at the Athens Olympics), who turned to his mother when things got rough in Beijing, when he finished eighth in the 1,000-metre kayak singles event, the first time he’d been off the podium in that event in some time. At the world championships the year before, he’d come second by an inch to British doctor Tim Brabants. He’d defeated Brabants twice that year and thought he had his number in Beijing.
Fortunately, Bokrossy was there to lend van Koeverden an ear. She had travelled to Beijing out of her own pocket, sharing a hotel room with three others to save costs. But this time around, she will have help in being able to offer help, if van Koeverden needs it.
Procter & Gamble has stepped forward with $500,000 to support the supporters, namely the mothers of Olympians, by either getting them to London or helping them to contact their offspring from home. While at the Games, the mothers will be treated to some perks, such as facials, with products manufactured by Procter & Gamble.
Bokrossy paid her own way to both the Athens and Beijing Olympics. “That’s the way it works in Canadian amateur sports,” she said. “That’s why this is such a fabulous recognition, because I know there are so many families that can’t be there.”
After van Koeverden’s 1,000-metre race in China, he sought out his mother. At Olympic Games, parents usually only get fleeting glimpses of their children, perhaps a few moments after a race.
“He had always won so gracefully,” Bokrossy said. “But of course, in his big way, he chose to have his first moment of disappointment on the world stage. He couldn’t just do it here, at the home club.”
She said after a “chit-chat,” to lighten the mood, she joked with him that she’d have to rent out his room.
“I was emotional and felt like disappearing,” van Koeverden said. “My mom pointed out that my Olympics of 2008 wouldn’t be defined by my failure in the 1,000. It would be defined by how I came back and raced the 500 the next day. Pretty insightful mom.”
His mother, he said, was probably the only person who could have put that idea in his head at the time. He said everybody else wished him well in his race in the 500 metres the next day, but “with doubt in their voice, like, ‘You screwed up, how is your race going to go tomorrow?’ ”
The next day, van Koeverden took the silver medal in the 500-metre race behind Australian Ken Wallace, a friend. It was hard, he said, because he was still in a state of shock.
“He pulled himself together very well and I think he probably ingratiated himself in the hearts of many Canadians, for apologizing for something he didn’t need to apologize for [losing] It’s just the way it works in sport,” she said.
Van Koeverden joined the Burloak Canoe Club in Oakville, Ont., when he was 13, after his mother saw an advertisement in the local newspaper that said, “Future champions wanted.”
“He was a very bright boy with too much time on his hands,” Bokrossy said. ‘I was convinced trouble will find you. You don’t have to go looking for it, so I looked for something to occupy his time.”
She said she thought of swimming, but “he sinks like a log.”
Since then, she has become accustomed to standing in the shadows while her son takes centre stage. She knows she will have little contact with van Koeverden at the London Olympics.
“I’ve kind of gotten used to the way competition works,” she said. “Really, it’s like that for any competition, even at the club regattas. The athletes go separately into their little headspaces, do thing things that they need to do to prepare. They come around to eat.”