TOKYO—It’s called the Sea Forest Waterway, the venue for the Olympic rowing regatta at these postponed Games. And if the name evokes a certain image – perhaps an idyllic basin flanked by verdant foliage, which is the way it looks from some angles on the TV broadcast – it’s a little bit of false advertising.
The “Sea” is out there somewhere. But the portion of Tokyo Bay on which the world’s best oarsfolk came to sort out the medals this week is flanked by an industrial wasteland heavy on rusted metal and bleak concrete. And as for the “Forest” — well, if you direct your gaze beyond the adjacent heavy-truck route and below the jets frequenting the commercial flight path overhead, yes, there are some trees.
Speaking of not quite living up to expectations: For the second straight Olympics, Canada’s rowing crew came into the final day of competition desperately needing a big performance from its women’s eight to help redeem an underwhelming showing. For the second straight Olympics, the national rowing crew came away from the opening two days of medal races with just one trip to the podium — in this case a hard-fought bronze from Hillary Janssens and Caileigh Filmer in the women’s pair. In Rio, one medal ended up being the whole of Canada’s haul, this in a regatta in which 14 other countries won at least two medals.
So let’s just say Canada’s gold-medal victory in Friday’s women’s eight was beyond timely. In winning Canada’s last chance at a rowing medal at these Games, the crew didn’t only pull off an upset over the reigning world champions from New Zealand, which finished with silver almost a second behind the Canadians. It also ended one of the sport’s most impressive dynasties, knocking off the podium a United States program that had won three straight gold medals in the event. China won bronze. The United States finished fourth both in the women’s and men’s eight and came away from the regatta without a single medal.
So take a bow, Lisa Roman, Christine Roper, Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski, Andrea Proske, Susanne Grainger, Madison Mailey, Sydney Payne and Avalon Wasteneys, not to mention coxswain Kristen Kit. You just helped right a national program that appeared to be charting a dangerously wayward course.
“I could talk to you all day about these women,” Kit, the coxswain from St. Catharines, said of her eight before the Olympics. “We have really great communication. We really do respect each other. Our hearts really do beat as one. By that I mean, our dream is the same, our feelings toward are dreams is the same.”
Kit, mind you, acknowledged that the Olympic final was almost impossible to prognosticate given how, coming into the Games, the Canadian eight hadn’t raced in most of two years.
“It’s actually really hard to know where we’re at,” Kit said. “We know our speed. We know where our areas of opportunity are in our race. But we obviously don’t know what our competition is doing.”
The gold allowed Canada to match its two-medal total from the London Olympics in 2012, when it came away with matching silvers in the men’s and women’s eight.
Heading into Friday, there are those who’d been wondering where the program had gone wrong since. Not that there still aren’t concerns, especially on the men’s side of the boathouse. Canada hasn’t fielded a men’s eight since that London silver. In 2016, the country’s small-boat strategy meant it didn’t even attempt to qualify an eight for the Rio Games. This time around a qualifying attempt to bring a big boat to Tokyo came up short. Conlin McCabe, the program veteran who was a member of that London eight and finished fourth here in the men’s pair with partner Kai Lagerfeld, said the world’s been getting better.
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“The Olympic rowing regatta’s been getting more and more competitive. Just qualifying for the Games is more and more difficult now than it was in London,” said McCabe. “In London we had a (men’s) pair, four and eight. Here we just had a pair qualify from the world championships, Kai and myself, and then the four made it through last chance. The regatta’s getting more competitive. The quality of rowers around the world is getting more competitive. Canada’s got to answer the call.”
There’s hope in the offing. McCabe, 30, pointed out there are promising young rowers in the pipeline, including a men’s four that won gold in the under-23 world championship.
But as for what’s required for the program to rediscover something closer to the boom time of 2008, when Canada won four medals in the sport? Both Lagerfeld and McCabe chose an interesting word: Leadership.
“What I really hope for Canadian men’s rowing is just really strong and clear leadership and guidance — something for all those young guys to sink their teeth into and just establish a good team and a good culture to work for,” Lagerfeld said.
Added McCabe: “Like Kai said, (eventual success) comes from having great leadership with a clear vision – (it) could really help establish that for the great crop of young, up-and-coming rowers who we’re super-excited to see what they can do.”
Leadership changes, of course, haven’t exactly been uncommon on Canada’s rowing staff. The poor performance in Rio led to turnover in the coaching ranks and in the all-important chair of high-performance director, with Peter Cookson exiting to make room for Iain Brambell.
“It’s pretty easy to scrutinize from the outside. But the athletes on the inside who have been through it ever since 2012, and been through all these changes, know just how difficult it’s been at times,” Lagerfeld said.
What hasn’t changed much, at least before now, has been rowing’s considerable bankroll. The sport received about $17 million in taxpayer-fueled Own The Podium funding in the lead-up to Rio. And while there were concerns that number would take a hit in the lead-up to Tokyo given Own The Podium’s pay-for-performance model, rowing was able to convince those who control the purse strings to fork over about $20 million en route to Tokyo.
Before Canada’s women’s eight pulled gold from the fire on Friday you might have been excused if you were skeptical about the program’s future prospects of retaining such funding. But as a triumphant eight celebrated its triumph — with Kit standing up in the boat to applaud her spent crewmates after they crossed the line at Sea Forest Waterway — maybe it was a little easier to see that particular forest through the trees.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk
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