They set a world record earlier this year, then lost to powerhouse Germany in their next race.
The Canadian men’s heavyweight eights came to London 2012 expecting to contend for a medal and perhaps even defend their 2008 gold - and finished last in their four boat qualifying heat.
First things first: it’s not catastrophic. The top four crews in a six-boat repechage will earn passage to the final - Canada merely needs to be faster than relative minnows Ukraine and Poland.
But that doesn’t make the performance any easier to swallow.
“It was just a bad race,” said coxswain Brian Price.
The inconsistency displayed by Canada’s youthful crew - there are just three holdovers from four years ago - is clearly a source of deep irritation on the part of its senior members, but they have every expectation they’ll be able to sort things out by Monday’s repechage and be in position to battle for a medal in Wednesday’s final.
And there’s no better antidote to inexperience than the shock and disappointment of under-performing on a major stage.
“If we’d had this happen to us before I don’t think we’d have let it happen to us again. In some sense, you can put that down as inexperience. But truly, it’s what you make of it. If you don’t pick yourself back up from that and focus on what’s right - that’s what it’s about, it’s racing,” said Malcolm Howard, a Harvard-educated national team veteran who has a gold medal from Beijing.
The six-foot-six Howard, who toils in the fifth seat as part of what rowers call “the engine room,” singled himself out for blame.
“A performance like that in many ways is my responsibility. It comes on my shoulders. I’ve been fortunate in my experience, in Beijing we were in the position the Germans are in, it was very different, but I’m still the leader in the crew, and I’m they guy who’s supposed to prepare them for this . . . a lot of that burden comes down on me,” he said. “After a race like that I feel that responsibility and that anger towards myself. It’s what I do with that, and what’s we do with it as a crew.”
The Canadians started well enough in what might be called the heat of death - it included Germany, who haven’t been beaten since 2009, and medal favourite Great Britain - and were level with the British through 500 metres.
That’s about when the wheels fell off.
“At 600 (Britain and Germany) started to move away, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be moving with them,” said Price, adding that the boat was as fast as it generally is in warm-ups and that “it felt like things were on.”
But as Germany surged ahead and Britain gave chase, the Canadians couldn’t find an answer.
As the race wore on, the unheralded Dutch roared past, and in the last quarter of the race, the Canadians shut the machine down.
“When we hit 300 to go there was no shot at winning, so I said we’re padding - well not paddling, but we’re not going for it at all, there was no point in burning, it would only hurt us for the repechage,” Price said.
Rowing regattas often come down to a psychological battle (asked why the sport is so mentally taxing, Howard said “Because you’re facing backwards?”).
Now the Canadians need to deliver a performance that will dispel any lingering doubts that may have been seeded by watching the Germans pull away.
Howard said the simple answer to the problem is to sharpen the team’s focus.
“It’s frustrating to see the speed that you can have, and then to not have it all the time . . . you don’t think about a boat based on how slow it can go, you think about a boat based on how fast it can go,” he said. “Having an extra race is obviously going to be very good for us.”
Canadian team leader Peter Cookson, the high-performance director for Rowing Canada, said he has no doubt his charges will bounce back.
“They’re a crew of character. They have a lot of internal strength. We can’t forget that just two months ago they set a world best time. This crew, with their character and their abilities and power, I’m sure we’ll see a good rebound in the next couple of races,” he said.
The challenge of the next two days is a simple one: regroup, and do the business in the repechage lest Canada draw a windswept lane in the final.
They’ll face some strong competition in the repechage round from Britain, but they may have a slight fitness edge over a rival that expended a great deal of effort it what was ultimately a futile pursuit of Germany.
In any case, the team is obligated to look at this as their lemon-into-lemonade moment.
“I think maybe that was a good experience, learning thing for some of the guys, there’s really no other explanation for it. Got in, maybe the nerves got hold of us a little bit, we’ve got past it, we’re going to go back to what we’ve been doing,” Price said.
“We know that we have the ability to do it, we know that. This is probably a good step towards finding that place that we need to get to,” he added.