Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Kayaking siblings compete with dad in mind

Canada's Ryan Cochrane (R) and Hugues Fournel competes in the men's kayak double (K2) 1000m semifinal at the Eton Dorney during the London 2012 Olympic Games August 6, 2012.


You get used to seeing tears at the Olympics.

Tears when they win.

Tears when they lose.

Story continues below advertisement

What made Emilie Fournel's tears so different on Tuesday was the story behind her journey to the Games and just how emotional these days have been even before she slipped into her polka-dot kayak for a race.

Fournel is a second-generation Olympian taking part in her second Games, but it's different this time because she has also inspired her younger brother, Hugues, to come along.

Neither may win a medal in London – Emilie finished 16th in the semi-finals of her best event, the K1 500 metres – but being here has been a cathartic process for the siblings.

Both are carrying mementos from their father, Jean, to their races and competing in the sprint kayak events, just as he did in the K4 1,000 in Montreal in 1976.

Ten years after his Games, Jean, a firefighter from Lachine, Que., died of leukemia at 40, leaving 11-year-old Emilie and 8-year-old Hugues with a void to fill the rest of their lives.

Being in the boat, just as he did, has been a part of that, and being at the Games, racing as he did, has meant much more than winning medals and reaching podiums.

"In my bag, I have a shirt that was his, and it's an old-school Canada shirt," Fournel said of her father on Tuesday, her voice quivering with exhaustion and emotion after coming off the water. "We paddle on emotions. That's the kind of paddlers we are. We paddle from the heart. That's why I like racing the 500 metres because it's a gutsy race and it's power, power, power and at the end it's all guts. I just think it's part of us. It's the way we grew up. For us it's a way of living, I guess."

Story continues below advertisement

It's been that way for Fournel for a long time, but these past four years have been even more intense. Much of the past two have been spent abroad, competing and training.

Only 5-foot-1, blond and with a wide smile even through the postrace tears, she has an incredible physique, including arms that bulge at the biceps as she windmills a paddle with Canadian flags on the blades and powers through the water.

That all of that effort wasn't enough to even make the final was tough to take on Tuesday, but she made it known she wouldn't trade the experience of competing at these Games with her kid brother for anything.

Hugues, after all, was only at these Olympics because of her efforts in Beijing.

When she made the team, he became so inspired that he began training for London. Now he is a medal hopeful entering Friday's races.

"I know that now I'm really disappointed, but he'll be on the dock waiting for me with my boat and he'll still love me," Fournel said. "He knows how much effort and everything I put into it. I'm sure he was on the side going crazy."

Story continues below advertisement

In a culture where far too often the attention is only about the big names, the medal count and the controversy, the Fournels have a story worth telling at these Olympics. It's about being family, being together and about remembering their father as they paddle as hard as they can with each other watching on.

Just as he did all those years ago.

"When we look back on these Games, he'll be part of it just as much as if he was in the stands like my mom is, you know?" Fournel said. "I was telling my brother, it's like we're creating a memory with him without him being here. Which is pretty special. Not many people get to experience something like that. That's why we appreciate this moment. We know he's up there somewhere, looking down."

Now the tears make so much sense.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to