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‘Hey, have I mentioned that my little brother’s rowing in the Olympics?”
If you and I have had occasion to speak in the past month or two, I can almost guarantee that at some point, typically in the first eight seconds, you’ve heard me utter this question-that-isn’t-really-a-question. In fact, I probably have already mentioned my brother’s incredible achievement to you, in an earlier conversation. The repetition is no accident.
See, the reason I keep asking is not because I’m on some lame quest for admiration-by-proxy. Or not entirely. The truth is I’m asking in the long-shot hope that you also have a brother competing in the Olympics, and might be able to teach me to do a better job of it. I fear I’m mucking the whole thing up.
We all tend to get a bit excited about our Canadian Olympians when the Games roll around. We feel a connection to the athletes wearing the Maple Leaf singlet – our national laundry. We consume newspaper profiles about them, and watch heartwarming biographical segments between commercial breaks.
But what happens to a sports fan who’s seen 25 years worth of heartwarming biographical segments for just one athlete? That’s me.
Michael’s 25 and I’m 31, so I’ve got an editing room full of reels. (Incidentally, he’s also now eight inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than me, which is why he gets to row for Canada, and I’m stuck tapping on a keyboard with slightly undersized fingers.)
I’ve seen it all. I remember the seven-year-old swimming prodigy unhealthily obsessed with medals, who would walk around the house with two dozen of them clanking around his neck.
I remember the 13-year-old beanpole who was simultaneously the youngest and the tallest Braithwaite in our six-member family portrait, prompting my mother to come up with one of her best running jokes: “Well … [sighing wistfully] … the milkman was tall, too.”
And the biographical scenes where the sad music wells up, of challenges faced and overcome? I’ve got 25 years of those stored up, too.
I was the one who convinced Michael he was a shoo-in to be recruited to an Ivy League rowing program … until they all passed on him. There were late nights at my apartment in Toronto, while he was struggling to lead a fledgling U of T rowing program out of obscurity, when he’d ask me (after clearing out most of the food in my fridge) if the sacrifices were worth it. What would he accomplish by putting himself through hell, waking at dawn to row on a nearly frozen lake?
I fear that I never provided a sufficiently wise older-brother answer. But despite my failings, here he is: an Olympian. And his exact boat – two men, four oars (Kevin Kowalyk’s in there, too) knifing across a still lake – is the one depicted on Canada Post’s commemorative 2012 Olympics stamp.
Michael wasn’t really supposed to make the 2012 team – Rio was his target – and the boat is a long shot to medal based on the competition, so Joe Barstool may not end up knowing him very well by the end of the Games.
So here’s another joy of Olympic-watching that’s been rudely ripped from me: the ability to walk away. The typical Canadian can move on to the next hopeful if his adopted athlete is nipped at the line, stumbles out of the blocks or chokes under pressure. Plug in, plug out. That no longer works for me.
There are 13 nations competing in Michael’s event tomorrow, and 12 make the semifinals. What if his team ends up odd-man-out?
He’s risen to the occasion on this sort of stage before. I was sitting in the press box in a Czech village to witness his first big triumph, winning bronze in the men’s single at the Under-23 World Championships.
But for every athlete who outperforms, another must necessarily stumble, or choke. The Olympics are a zero-sum game.
How does one deal with this intense closeness, this familial knowledge of how the Olympian sausage is made? In different ways. My sister has thrown herself into cheerleading, printing T-shirts and ponchos for friends and relatives and hounding us to post video messages for Michael on the Internet. My father became so boastful on Facebook that Michael had to impose “final cut” reviews of any social-media outbursts. The two of them will be at the course tomorrow, cheering Michael on.
My mother, on the other hand, told me not too long ago that she felt she ought to be more excited. “Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet, maybe it won’t until I see him on TV,” she said, and I felt we were experiencing the same thing: an overwhelming mix of feelings and emotional obligations, perhaps too much to handle in one go.
But all this me, me, me stuff is part of the problem, isn’t it? Who cares what I think? Shouldn’t Michael’s own thoughts be 50 times more powerful and important? I suppose that’s why he’s there: Not just because he’s bigger than the rest of our family, but because he’s figured out how to handle all the emotions, to harness those 25 years and turn them into something incredible.
In the end, it’s not about how he does, and whether that reflects well or poorly on you or me. What’s important is that he’s getting to do it at all. And he is welcome to raise and reraise the subject with me whenever he wants. I’ll never get tired of hearing about it.
Andrew Braithwaite lives in San Francisco. His brother Michael (michaelbraithwaite.ca) competes tomorrow in the men’s double sculls rowing event.