For a solid two years, the crew of Canadians women’s rowing eight had only one goal: Beat the allegedly unbeatable Americans.
They didn’t care about anyone else, not the Dutch, not the Romanians, who are the other traditional powerhouses in the sport.
The American girls were, no doubt, the dominant force. They had not lost a World Cup race since 2005. They were the defending Olympic champions and they fully intended to stay that way.
But then came the world cup in Lucerne, Switzerland, in May. The Canadians, who had made huge progress since their fourth-place showing in the 2008 Beijing Gam es, came literally within inches of taking gold. At that point, they realized their American rivals were beatable.
The Canadians were just that good, meaning luck would not have to enter the winning equation in the London Olympics. Coxswain Lesley Thompson-Willie, a veteran of seven Olympics, pronounced the current Canadian team the very best that she had worked with in 35 years in the stern position.
The girls, in other words, came to win gold in London, not silver or bronze. Gold.
But once again, they had to settle for second, behind the torpedo-like U.S. crew. While some, but not all, of the crew itself professed satisfaction, Peter Cookson, the performance director for the Canadian Olympic rowing squads, was clearly disappointed. “Are we totally satisfied?” he said shortly after the race. “I would say no.”
“They were going for gold and their prep work was incredibly good. We threw the bucket at the U.S.”
The race was never a thriller, because the Americans led the whole way. But things did get interesting in the second half of the 2-kilometre slog, when the Canadians pried open the steam valves and posted the fasted time in the third and fourth 500-metre legs, reducing a 3-second gap to the Americans to a mere 1-second by the end.
Canada had to make do with silver. Bronze went to the Netherlands, which was a thrill for the Dutch because Romania, which had placed fourth, had been touted as a medal winner.
The good news is that Thompson-Willie, who is set to wind down her rowing career, is going out with yet another medal. Before London, she had won four, including a gold in the 1992 Barcelona games. The bad news is that she’s not going out with the colour she wanted.
“We had a good race,” she said, admitting that the Canadians were not worried in the slightest about the Dutch team – it was always about the Americans. “You always race to win and it didn’t happen, so there is always a bit of disappointment… Hats off to [the Americans]. They had to be awfully strong to beat us.”
Even though the Americans were favoured, they took their Canadian rivals utterly seriously. If there was one team that could end the historic American winning streak, it was Canada. “I talked to the American coach just before the race and he said ‘We’re worried about Canada,’” Cookson said.
So how did the Americans hang onto their fastest-in-the-pond status? In a word, time (though American rower Zsuzsanna Francia indelicately credited “ball buster” coaching)
The Americans have been running a well-financed, well-managed and technologically savvy training and race program for many years -- a model for every other team. The results speak for themselves.
And the Canadians? Their rowing rebuilding campaign began in earnest only two years ago. The improvement is indeed impressive since the Beijing let-down. In the world rowing cup in 2009, the Canadians ranked six.
But look what happened after that: Second in the 2010 World Cup, followed by another second in the 2011 Cup. This year’s near-victory in Lucerne made the Canadians the only serious threat to the Americans.
Cookson takes heart in the speedy improvement of the girls. “It’s working for us, but it takes time,” he said, implying that another two years could turn the women (and the men, who won silver in the eight in London), into world beaters.
To be sure, not all the women, or their coaches, were disappointed by their inability to sink the U.S. boat. “It’s an amazing group of women that I’ve had the privilege to row with and we gave it our all, no regrets,” said Lauren Wilkinson, of North Vancouver. “Fuel to the fire for 2016.”
If the girls keep improving at the current pace, the 2016 Games will be theirs. But they would go to the podium without Thompson-Willie, who is 52. When pressed, she did not say for sure that London was her last Olympics, but hinted strongly that she would “wean” herself out of the sport.
With five Olympic medals in her trophy case, she’s allowed to.