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, beyond the grey walls of the race course. 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. 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.
And 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 otherwise underwhelming showing. Five years ago in Rio, the late heroics escaped the eight, which finished fifth to punctuate Canada’s disappointment.
But as the members of the eight arrived at starting gate before Friday’s pivotal race, they convinced themselves they’d been sent a sign things would be different this time. The clouds were dark and threatening. Thunder loudly rumbled. Clearly, they told each other, it was Kathleen Heddle, the Canadian Olympic rowing legend who died in January at age 55, cheering them on from the beyond.
“(When) the thunder was out. It was just a reminder that Kathleen was with us, and we’re the storm, and we’re going to bring it,” said Susanne Grainger, one of three holdovers from the Rio eight. “We had a moment as a boat to remember her and make sure we brought the amazing grace and grit she rowed with into our race. We definitely had her on our minds today.”
With the program’s redemption in their hands and a legend’s spirit on their minds, maybe it was only fitting that Canada’s eight unfurled an unexpected lightning bolt of a timely victory that forever put them in Heddle’s rare Olympic company. In winning Canada’s last chance at a rowing gold 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 a United States program that had won three straight gold medal in the event off the podium. China won bronze.
The United States, which would later follow up its fourth-place finish in the women’s eight with a fourth-place finish in the men’s eight, failed to medal in Olympic rowing for the first time since 1908.
Beyond all that, Canada’s eight won the country’s first gold medal in the sport’s marquee women’s event since 1992, when Heddle and partner Marnie McBean won one of their Canadian-record three career summer Games golds as members of the big boat. It was the country’s first women’s gold since 1996, when Heddle and McBean won the double sculls in Atlanta. And given the situation, it was vital to the program’s outlook.
So take a bow, Rio holdovers Grainger, Lisa Roman and Christine Roper. And absorb the moment, Olympic newcomers Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski, Andrea Proske, Madison Mailey, Sydney Payne, Avalon Wasteneys and coxswain Kristen Kit. In channelling Heddle’s spirit, you just helped right a national program that appeared to be charting a dangerously wayward course. After finishing the heats second to New Zealand, and finishing the repechage second to Romania, you brought the storm when it mattered.
“These are a feisty group of women. They do not back down,” Kit said. “This special group of women, we said it last night, we perform when we need to. We perform on the day. And these girls, they always rise to the challenge.”
Certainly the trip to the top of the podium wasn’t easy to see coming. Thanks to Canada’s strict COVID travel protocols, the women’s eight essentially hadn’t raced internationally in most of the past two years. But even before the regatta began it’s worth remembering that Kit, who assumed the role held in Rio by five-time Olympic medallist coxswain Lesley Thompson-Willie, insisted she was confident that Canada had the speed to deliver a gold. In lieu of the usual series of Olympic tune-up races against the world’s best women, the group had honed that form on the waters of Victoria’s Elk Lake alongside their frequent training partners from Canada’s men’s four.
The men’s four, which finished eighth here, was usually faster than the women’s eight, which provided a helpful training benchmark.
“They’re faster than us to the point where it pushes us, but not to the point where it’s unachievable,” Kit said before the race. “(But) it’s actually really hard to know where we’re at. 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, along with a bronze from the women’s pair of Hillary Janssens and Caileigh Filmer, saw Canada match its two-medal total from London in 2012, when it came away with silvers in the men’s and women’s eight.
Heading into Friday, there were those who’d been wondering where the program had gone wrong in the intervening years. Not that there still aren’t concerns on the men’s side of the boathouse. Canada hasn’t even fielded a men’s eight at the Olympics since that London silver. In 2016 the country’s small-boat strategy meant it didn’t even attempt to qualify one for Rio. 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 getting better all the time.
“Just qualifying for the Games is more and more difficult now than it was in London,” said McCabe. “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 its form of, say, 2008, when it brought home four medals from Beijing? 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,” Lagerfeld said.
Added McCabe: “Like Kai said, (eventual success) comes from having great leadership with a clear vision.”
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 office of the 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 has been rowing’s considerable bankroll. The sport received about $17 million in taxpayer-fuelled 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 Friday.
Before Canada’s women’s eight pulled gold from the threatening clouds on Friday you might have been excused if you were skeptical about the program’s future prospects of retaining all of those millions. But as an elated 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 — it was suddenly easier to see that particular forest through the trees.
If one gold medal didn’t exactly hearken back to the back-to-back boom Games of 1992 and 1996, when Heddle and McBean were among the faces of an operation that delivered an astounding 10 medals, five of them gold, at least the legacy of those glory days proved, not a burden, but an inspiration.
After Canada burst from the gate to command an early-race lead — pulling nearly two seconds ahead of the Kiwis at the halfway point of the 2,000-metre race — the only question was whether they’d be able to hold off their surging opponents. In those trying moments, with Kit’s crew feeling the sport’s gruelling full-body burn, the coxswain encouraged the eight to weather the suffering while invoking the names of two women.
One was Michelle Darvill, the boat’s Toronto-born coach, whom the crew lauded for her patient guidance amid pandemic chaos. The other was Heddle, whose name is synonymous within the sport with grace and grit and unyielding resolve.
With 750 metres to go, Kit called out a question over the in-boat speaker system.
“I called, ‘What would Kathleen do?’” she said. “And then shortly after that I called, ‘What would Michelle do?’ These girls responded. It was 10 strokes for Kathleen and 10 strokes for Michelle. That’s when I really knew, ‘Like, oh God, we have this.’ ”
They had it, and their lightning-bolt performance couldn’t have come at a better time.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk