When they stood on the dock, their captain, Malcolm Howard, called everyone together in a huddle.
On cue, the nine encircled one another, arms over shoulders, head’s bowed as Howard spoke, Jerry Brown cried and Andrew Byrnes reflected.
The silver medal they’d just won hadn’t been the ultimate reward, but it felt every bit as satisfying to a crew that had just capped a compelling week with a remarkable race on the Eton Dorney lake course.
For more than 1,500 metres in Wednesday’s final of the men’s eight, the Canadian rowing crew kept the undefeated Germans within striking distance, only come within an oar’s length of finishing first.
That Canada had fought off the Brits and Australians for second place, especially after opening the London Olympic regatta on such a crushing note, was nothing short of glorious.
As Rowing Canada high-performance director Peter Cookson described it afterward: “This is incredible. It showed such fortitude to come back from such a stinker of a [first] race. I can’t tell you everything that went on behind the scenes.”
He couldn’t, but others did.
After Canada’s last-place showing in last Saturday’s heats, the crew was dispatched to coach Mike Spracklen’s dog house. The rowers had started off quickly over the first 500 metres only to lose steam in the middle section of the course, before calling off the race to conserve energy. Their 74-year-old British coach was fried. Six months of carefully scripted planning gone in five minutes.
Known for taking the Canadian men’s eight team to gold in 1992 and 2008, the acerbic Spracklen tore a strip off his athletes, telling them: “They’d f’d up and it was silly.”
Having got his team’s attention, Spracklen came up with a new strategy.
Instead of bolting to the lead and hanging on to the end, the Canadians reviewed their competition and decided an all-out blitz against the Germans was futile.
They hadn’t lost a race in four years. Instead, it was decided Canada should concentrate on beating the boats it could.
“The answer was to go off, find your rhythm first, then attack,” Spracklen explained. “We were happy to let the Germans go ahead for a length then start to crawl back.”
The Canadians worked the idea smartly.
Out of Lane 5, they were third behind Great Britain and Germany at 1,000 metres, third at 1,500, before blasting ahead of the fading Brits (whose all-out attack after the halfway mark had them briefly ahead of the Germans) over the last 500.
“I heard Brian [Price, the coxswain] say: ‘We’re two seats down to the Brits. We’re moving, we’re moving,’ ” said Brown, the former McMaster University football player who only started rowing four years ago. “I thought, ‘Okay, let’s get that bronze.’ And all of a sudden, he said: ‘We’re one seat up.’ I thought, ‘Let’s keep it going.’
“Then, Brian said: ‘Ten strokes to the line, boys, and we’ve got a silver medal.’ ”
When they stood on the dock after the race, the nine teammates hugged and shared their joy. Brown said it was “pure emotion, ecstasy.”
Meanwhile, choking back emotion, the disappointment of British rower Constantine Louloudis was clear – but so was the ambition of his crew and what they had done to try to achieve it.
“If we had wanted a silver medal, we would have got a silver medal,” the 20-year-old said.
“We went for the win, we went for gold and in our last 250 [metres] my legs had nothing left. I had given everything and was hoping the other seven had enough to carry me over.”
Sadly for the host nation, they did not.
For the Canadians, Byrnes, another former Beijing boat member, said it was about every man giving his all and never doubting in the other guy.
“We knew the Germans were going to be a tough nut to crack. Our race plan was focusing on the crews we know we’re faster than. Outracing the Brits and Aussies put us up there with the Germans,” said Byrnes, who admitted the mood after last Saturday’s heat was “dark, a hard place to come back from.
“But what we did is a testament to this crew, the tenacity of these guys, the resilience of our coach that we were able to pick up the pieces from what could have been a devastating experience.”
Cookson admitted could he barely watch the last 500 metres because they were so dramatic. Seeing his team cross the finish line second, a grinning Spracklen replied: “Well, that was a relief.”
So was not having to yell at his rowers.
“[I’ve] never shouted or got aggressive in that situation [before]. Exactly the opposite,” Spracklen said. “So when they went out for the [their repechage row last Monday] I got aggressive again and a little aggressive on this one. … Well, I wasn’t going to achieve anything being nice.”
In the end, what his rowers achieved was producing their best on the day that mattered.
In their eyes, the silver medal looked surprisingly golden held in just the right light.With a report from The Times, London
Canadian men’s eight bios
Brian Price, 36, born in Belleville, Ont. This is the coxswain’s third Olympics. A survivor of childhood leukemia, a harsh drug regimen stunted Price’s growth but left him the perfect size for a coxswain, standing 5 foot 4 and 121 pounds. Price credits his illness for helping to transform him into an Olympic champion.
Malcolm Howard, 29, born in Victoria. The team captain, Howard was also a member of the gold-medal winning eight crew in Beijing in 2008. Listed at 6 foot 6 and more than 230 pounds, the Harvard University educated Howard generates so much power when he rows he has been known to fracture ribs.
Andrew Byrnes, 29, born in Toronto. The third returning team member from Beijing, Byrnes holds dual citizenship in Canada and United States, and grew up in Ithaca, N.Y. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Jerry Brown, 26, born in Cobourg, Ont. Brown only started rowing four years ago, inspired to take it up after he watched the Canadian men’s eight win gold in Beijing. Brown attended McMaster University in Hamilton, where he was an offensive tackle on the Marauders football team from 2004 to 2007.
Will Crothers, 25, born in Kingston. Crothers attended the University of Washington (as did men’s eight teammate). When not in training during his university days, Crothers was known for bombing around the U of W campus on a skateboard.
Rob Gibson, 26, born in Kingston. He was an Olympic alternate in 2008, and you can say he was motivated to make the team this time around. He missed, by one second, being named to the Beijing crew – something he said he carried with him four years.
Conlin McCabe, 21. Born in Brockville, Ont. McCabe is youngest of the crew by three years, the so-called baby – if that’s what you call someone 6 foot 8 and 235 pounds. He is a cousin of Martha McCabe, who is a member of the Canadian Olympic swim contingent in the 200-metres breaststroke.
Doug Csima, 26, born in Oakville, Ont. Csima earned his nursing degree at McMaster, where he enrolled at 17, hoping to play for the Marauders hockey team. When he discovered the university no longer had a varsity team, he took up rowing.
Gabe Bergen, 30, born in Dawson Creek, B.C. Bergen comes from an athletic background: A brother, Bob, played basketball at the University of Victoria; another brother, Karel, is a mixed martial arts competitor. Closer to home, father, Bob, was an Olympic rower in 1976 at Montreal.