He was, in his own words, “the king of the club.”
As the grandson, son and nephew of four Olympians in canoe or kayak, Mark Oldershaw had his run of the Burloak Canoe Club in Oakville, Ont., since he was a toddler, the next of a famous clan to follow in their footsteps by taking to life on the water.
He was good, too, right from the beginning, and seemed to be on the fast track to being one of the world’s top paddlers.
Then a 13-year-old named Adam van Koeverden showed up.
“My parents were the coaches so I kind of grew up there,” Oldershaw said. “And then he came in and kind of became the superstar, which took some time to adjust to as a 12 or 13 year old used to being the king of the club. He came in and stole that.”
There’s no bitterness there, though. He chuckled even as he said it.
“We’ve just been totally supportive of each other ever since then,” he added, “especially because he’s in kayak and I’m canoe and we both can have our own success.”
Success has followed van Koeverden everywhere, from gold and bronze medals in the 2004 Olympics in Athens to a silver four years ago at the Beijing Games, becoming one of the sport’s biggest names the past decade.
Oldershaw, meanwhile, is still searching for his first podium finish after being eliminated in the semi-finals of the canoe singles (C-1) 500 metres in 2008, his first Olympics.
Looking back to the early days, Oldershaw recalls that while he and the other kids at the club were fooling around in their boats and splashing each other on the water as they learned the sport, van Koeverden was already focused and training like a professional almost from Day 1.
“He has always been kind of drawn to that hard work,” Oldershaw said. “I followed suit a few years later.”
The two have over time become close friends – spending some 200 days a year together on the road in competition – and using their competitive rivalry to train hard for these Games.
While a health scare kept Oldershaw from competing in Athens – with two surgeries on his hand to remove tumours that were causing immense pain – he has since pushed hard to catch up to his pal.
“You definitely want to be up there with him,” Oldershaw said of reaching the podium. “At the same time, I have to make sure I don’t compare myself to him because I’m never going to win three-plus Olympic medals. I just don’t have that many events left.
“I don’t want to have to live up to him or even be held back by him. I have to do my own thing. And focus on that. But at the same time, it’s great to see one of your best friends do that well.”
There’s also some personal history at work for the Oldershaws as a group. The 2012 Games will mark the ninth trip to the Olympics for a member of the family, and there is some nice symmetry this time around given grandfather Bert Oldershaw’s first of three Olympic appearances was in 1948 in London.
What an Oldershaw hasn’t done is return home to the Burlington, Ont., area with a medal, a drought the youngest of the clan will attempt to end beginning Monday morning in the C-1 1,000-metre heats.
At 29, he is in his prime and coming off a fifth-place finish at the world championship last year.
“This is my best chance at the Olympics or at making the podium,” he said.
As for living in van Koeverden’s shadow all these years, Oldershaw doesn’t sound the least bit envious. He credits his friend with helping pull him and others along, using his legendary work ethic to help them make an impact at the Games.
“He’s just one of the most generous people I know,” Oldershaw said. “He cares a lot about his friends and wants them to succeed and do well. For all the success he’s had, he’s tried to carry his friends with him as much as he can and support them and give as much as he can.
“I totally feel like I’ve been a part of [his medals]. We’ve been training together a long time and when he has success, I’m a part of that, and vice versa. We’ve kind of grown into adults together, and it’s been a fun little journey.”