May 29, 2006

Kurva Jó!

Something significant — significant to me, personally — happened yesterday in the small world of Canadian amateur sports. It won't register on the national radar screen, but I think some of the readers of this blog will appreciate it as a sporting accomplishment.

On Sunday in Duisburg, Germany, Canada won the Men's K-4 1000m final at the Duisburg Internationale Kanu Regatta und World-Cup 2006.

Our heroes at an earlier World Cup race in Poland

During my days as an athlete paddling for Canada I was something of a specialist in that event. In fact, that's an understatement — during three World Championships and one Olympic Games, I never raced in anything but K-4, at one distance or another. Looked at in a positive light, I could say that I was a core member of the national team K-4 for about eight years.

But looked at in another way, that national team K-4 was often pretty bad. From 1989 through 1992, we weren't even good enough to qualify to represent Canada at the World Championships or Olympics.

One of the lowest points of my career came sometime in the early 1990s at the Duisburg International Regatta. Duisburg is a tough place to race if you are not competitive with the world's best. Because of the timing of the regatta and the quality of the course, the regatta is always very well-attended. And each competing country can have two entries per event — as opposed to the Worlds, where it's limited to one. In men's kayak, especially, that can make for a brutally strong field. I raced at Duisburg half a dozen times between 1989 and 1996.

In this particular year, I was stroking the K-4 1000m — an inexplicable choice, to be blunt, but one that probably reflected our limited options at the time. In an early heat, my steering led us so close to the 500m start platform that at least one of my teammates had to miss a stroke in the middle of the race. That was a humiliating mistake to make at that level, although our general lack of K-4 skill was really the cause of our last-place finish. The end result: we failed, yet again, to even reach the semi-finals at Duisburg.

So, I spent yet another year at Duisburg with my Saturday afternoon and Sunday free. (As one of my teammates used to point out, this didn't have to be a bad thing. He would quote some of our southern-hemisphere colleagues: "The bad news is, we're out of the regatta. The good news is, we're on the piss!") This time, though, I was questioning whether I was really learning anything at all. Were we, as a team, getting something out of these beatings? Was I, as an athlete, still getting better? This all sounds rather introspective and thoughtful, but it wasn't — I am certain that I was a complete asshole to be around that weekend. All I really wanted to do was go home.

I got over that experience, eventually, although I wasn't finished with my punishment at Duisburg. A few years later, I did eventually get to race in a final there, in K-4 500m — we finished ninth, but it was glorious to belong. And in 1995 Duisburg hosted the World Championships, where we finished ninth in the K-4 1000m final, and also finished fourth in the inaugural K-4 200m event. At the 1996 Olympics, my international K-4 career finished with a seventh-place finish.

These results represented, more or less, the pinnacle of Canada's achievement in men's K-4 up to that point. The current crew — Richard Dober Jr., Steven Jorens, Ryan Cuthbert, and Andrew Willows — smashed through those marks yesterday. I know that these young men, and the whole Canadian team, have travelled their own journey in K-4 over the past six years. That journey was not unlike my own; they too have come from nowhere to here, and not always in a continuous line of progress. But they have now broken through to a place that I can only imagine: what must it have felt like to stand on the top of the podium in Duisburg?

Here's to more breakthroughs on the journey to come: congratulations, guys.

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