Skip to main content

Adam van Koeverden trains at the Burloak Canoe Club in Oakville, Ont. Wednesday, June 13, 2012Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Part of Liquid State, an occasional series on our relationship with water.

After he had freed himself from a boat cabin turned upside down and filling with water, Adam Kreek thought of his mom. She had made him take swimming lessons as a child because, after all, living in Canada anything can happen. You can fall into a river, fall out of a canoe, fall through ice.

"There's a lot of water in this country," Gail Kreek told her son. "And you need to be safe."

To be Canadian is to know there are certain absolutes in life: Never put your tongue on frozen metal; always help your neighbour when his car is stuck in the snow (you could be next); and learn to respect the water because we live in a nation dotted by lakes, lined with rivers, pockmarked by ponds.

Think about it: Environment Canada estimates we have at least two million lakes, which gives us more lake area than any other country in the world. Water is more than an essential source of human existence – we need it therefore we crave it – it courses through all that Canada is, our culture, our identity. To be a Canadian, we have joked, is to love the wilderness, love hockey and to be able to make love in a canoe, which sounds silly but makes sense.

"The waterways are the veins of our nation," said Adam Kreek, who went from swimmer to 2008 Olympic gold medalist in rowing to, most recently, an ocean adventurer. "They have defined our history from the explorers and fur traders to where we live. We want to be by the water, and that has defined the sports we're good at, too."

We are, indeed, good on water.

At the Winter Olympics, the highest level of competition for most sports, Canadians thrive on frozen water. We speed-skate, figure-skate, luge, skeleton, bobsleigh, curl and play hockey like few on the planet, and we have the medals to prove it. In the Summer Olympics, we're inhibited by our discrepancies (big country, small population base) but not our natural resources.

In fact, of the 20 land sports that were part of the 2012 London agenda, Canada has won 133 Olympic medals all-time. Amazingly enough, Canada has the same 133 medal count in just six water events (rowing, swimming, synchronized swimming, canoe/kayak, diving and sailing). Give us a hockey stick or give us an oar, either way, someone's going to get paddled.

"I try to relate my sport to Canadians," explained Olympic gold-medal kayaker Adam van Koeverden, who was also told by his mom he had to learn how to swim as a rite of citizenship. "When I talk to people I say, 'There wouldn't have been a canoe without Canada, and there wouldn't have been Canada without a canoe.' There are a lot of other sports but canoeing is special to Canada because so much of how this country was discovered was based on canoeing and water."

Mr. van Koeverden was inspired by Larry Cain, who won a gold medal in canoeing at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. At those same Summer Games, swimmers Victor Davis, Alex Baumann and Anne Ottenbrite won four gold medals. Their success inspired Mark Tewksbury who inspired Curtis Myden and others. Marnie McBean, Kathleen Heddle and Silken Laumann went on to dominate rowing. Alexandre Despatie, Anne Montminy and Emilie Heymans have starred in diving; Carolyn Waldo, Michelle Cameron and Sylvie Frechette in synchronized swimming.

And let's not forget Lawrence Lemieux, who was on his way to a 1988 gold medal in sailing when he did a most Canadian thing. He stopped to help two Singaporean sailors whose boat had capsized during the race. It cost him a medal but earned him everlasting regard.

When it comes to the water, Canadians have developed an unsinkable legacy.

"I remember being on the pool deck at the 1979 Pan-American Games and trying to emulate Graham Smith," said Mr. Baumann, once the head of Canada's Own The Podium program and now the chief executive of High Performance Sport New Zealand. "I got into swimming because I had a family history with it – my mom was a swimmer in the Czech Republic – and because there were a lot of lakes around Sudbury, where I grew up, and a brand new 50-metre pool at Laurentian University. That was the opportunity I had.

"Add role models and their success at the highest level, it galvanizes a country."

There is, of course, more to our watery heritage than competitive swimmers and rowers. There are the hundreds of thousands who boat, water-ski, wakeboard and fish all for fun. New Brunswick's Restigouche River ranks as one of the world's best spots for Atlantic salmon fly fishing. Its notable anglers have included royalty (Duke of Windsor), politicians (Brian Mulroney, George H.W. Bush), businessmen (William K. Vanderbilt), entertainers (Bing Crosby) and athletes (Ted Williams, Maurice 'Rocket' Richard). What those and others have come to appreciate is that while a Canadian summer is short, there are a lot of ways to enjoy it.

As for Mr. Kreek, he took his interest in water to a bigger stage earlier this year. He and three crewmates attempted to row across the Atlantic while recording scientific readings of the ocean's surface. They were bound for Miami, and close to journey's end, when they were capsized by a wave. As he scrambled out of the boat's inverted cabin and swam to the surface, Mr. Kreek had a new appreciation for where he was born and how he was raised.

"My mother had a near-death experience at 13 near Dorchester, Ont. She fell through a frozen pond. Friends had to pull her out," Mr. Kreek said. "She was afraid of the water but didn't want her kids to be because we lived in a country where water has shaped so much of who we are … it has a spiritual, psychological effect on us. When I'm on the water, rowing, I have such a sense of freedom. It's a great feeling."