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rio 2016

Coxswain Lesley Thompson Willie (left) in action during the women's eight at the Rio Olympics.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

At the Olympic rowing centre in Rio de Janeiro this week, one Canadian athlete on the women's crew stands out among her teammates, as well as the entire lagoon of international rowers. She's the only one old enough to be the competitors' mother.

With that distinction comes another, less visible and more impressive. She began to accumulate her bounty of five Olympic medals before most of the athletes were born.

Lesley Thompson-Willie, 56, knows that she defies the image of the youthful Olympian. When she meets people and tells them she's at the Games, they assume she's a coach.

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"They're not even thinking I'm here competing," Thompson-Willie said at the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon on Monday. "I'm okay with that."

She should be okay with it because, whether anyone knows it or not, her work as coxswain in women's eight rowing has helped Canadian crews to a podium finish five times. They are focusing on pulling it off again.

Thompson-Willie is the oldest of the 313 athletes on Team Canada in the Rio Games. She is also the most decorated. With that, the athlete from London, Ont., is helping challenge assumptions about age, Olympians and high-level competition.

"I think it's redefining to our society that we can keep going, as long as we're active," she says. "Hopefully it's a sign of the importance of being fit and being able to keep participating in things."

The Canadian women's eight team finished third in their Monday heat and return to the lagoon on Wednesday to try to qualify for the final on Saturday. In her spot in the back of the boat facing the rowers, Thompson-Willie cut a diminutive figure doing the job of coxswain, often referred to as cox: being the eyes as well as commander of the vessel, steering its course.

The Olympics remain, overwhelmingly, a competition dominated by the young. Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak, who has won a pair of medals for Canada in the Rio Games, is the country's first 21st-century Olympian, along with swimmer Taylor Ruck. The two were born in 2000, the year Thompson-Willie was in Sydney competing in her sixth Olympics and bringing home her fourth medal.

Still, studies show the age of Olympic athletes is rising: The U.S. Olympic team in Rio is an average of 27 years old, compared with 25.2 at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

Several athletes at the Games are drawing attention for their longevity.

Gymnast Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan is participating in her seventh Olympics and, at 41, competing against women less than half her age.

Long-distance runner Jo Pavey, 42, is the first British track athlete to compete in five Olympics, and says she is not ready to retire, even if her teammates have started to call her Granny.

Bernard Lagat is, at 41, the oldest U.S. athlete to compete in a running event at Rio. "I don't believe I'm old. Because if I believe I'm old, I'm gonna run like an old man," he told an interviewer.

Canada has its share of experienced competitors. Eric Lamaze is still going strong in equestrian at 48 and Daniel Nestor is firing up the tennis court at 43.

Yet Thompson-Willie occupies her own unique place in the field. She arrives in Rio tying the all-time record for the most appearances at the Olympics by a woman, at eight, set by German/Italian canoeist Josefa Idem Guerrini in London in 2012. She's positioned for another record: A sixth medal in Rio would make her most medalled Canadian in any Summer Games.

(Her eight-Games career began with the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Thompson-Willie made the Canadian team but couldn't compete because Canada joined a Games boycott.)

Thompson-Willie, a former gymnast, acknowledges that her role as coxswain places fewer physical demands on her than on the rowers. But it does entail a strenuous fitness regime of strength training and core work, crucial to helping her remain still in a boat against the forces of the wind and water.

And she keeps her weight at 110 pounds, observing the limits set by international rowing rules. At 5 feet, 3 inches, Thompson-Willie is petite next to the long-limbed rowers aged 19 to 29 on her team.

"She trains hard in terms of keeping her physical fitness to a very high standard," says Peter Cookson, Rowing Canada's high performance director. And she brings decades of sure-handed experience to her crew.

"There are other athletes" – presumably younger – "who would love to have her seat," Cookson says. "But she's kept it by the good work she does."

Perhaps the biggest tribute to Thompson-Willie comes from the eight teammates who are young enough to be her daughters. With each oar stroke in the water, they're placing their full confidence in her judgment.

"If we were in a tornado, I trust that she's going to keep us straight on course," 19-year-old Caileigh Filmer, of Victoria, said after the heat on Monday. "In any water conditions, I completely trust her because she's raced through it all."

When Filmer looks at the 56-year-old, she doesn't see a mother figure. She sees a formidable teammate. "She's the most tremendous cox I've ever met," Filmer said. "And she's so much fun."

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