- Thursday, 18 August 2016 17:40
I needed time before writing this post. I needed to go home and spend time with my family and my 3 months-old daughter who grew up way too fast in the past month and a half. I needed to go away and I guess I will have to be able to swallow the frustration of an epic Olympic regatta.
What can I tell you about it?
We arrived in Rio fully prepared and confident. We knew we had the speed to challenge the 1st place and we had medal expectations. But we also knew that the short amount of experience as a quad could also be our weakness against crews with decades of experience and a legacy in that event.
On site, we were blown away by the incredible location in the most iconic place of Rio. The Corcovado overlooks the lagoon where the regatta took place. It was located a few hundred meters away from Ipanema Beach where we met by chance the girl who was the inspiration of the very famous song 50 years ago. Our hotel was pretty much on the beach and we were biking to the venue. It was ideal.
The other side of the coin with being that close to the ocean was obvious. The ocean winds were to rule the regatta along with the media requirements. The first day of racing was scheduled and started in ideal conditions at 8am. As it went on and conditions started to be more and more difficult, it was almost impossible for the organization to reschedule the first day because of the Olympic Games requirements. The memory of the Serbian men’s pair, medal hopefuls in their event, capsizing in front of us when we arrived at the course will stick in my mind for a very long time. We were an hour and forty-five minutes from our start time and we could hear whispers in the boating area. “They should stop it. It is dangerous”. “We go there no matter what”. “It is all about opportunity now”.
Our strategy became clear while I was watching the heats during the morning. Go to the start line. Take the best out of the 1st 500m as it was sheltered without wasting too much energy so that we could attack the middle 1000 fully relaxed. It was going to be the rough part. The crew that will minimize the number of mistakes will be the crew leading. The last 500 was in comparison a bit better so we were going to wait and make a move when everyone was going to struggle. It was the best strategy. Maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. Looking at our opposition in that heat we knew that they would probably use the 1st 500 as much as they could. Our job was to stay in contact and strike.
History shows that battle strategies can be brilliant, well prepared, close to perfection and full of genius, the outcome is often dictated by details that are hard to predict and/or out of control.
Everything started as planned. By the book. The Germans and the Ukrainians took off fast. The Estonians played their card in the middle 1000. We were a length behind cutting through the waves and making sure we were in control of our boat. It was wild out there and waves were hitting the hull, splashing in the riggers. Minor mistakes happened. We were handling it well. I had traded my small rudder for a big one to be able to counter the swell and the “surf effect”. The water situation in the lagoon was the hot topic before the Games. Well... I probably drank the equivalent of a small bottle of water during this race alone. And I am still alive! It was like rowing on the ocean at some point. However, I remained calm and told my crewmates where we were. As I was in charge of calling the race, I announced our position at the 1250 with a simple “4th. One length down” indicating that we were in 4th position, a boat length behind the leader. That was perfect. Estonia was leading and we were neck-a-neck with Germany and the Ukraine who probably spent their money early in the race. I made a decision to call for “press”. It is time to go, squeeze the finishes and gather speed. When I said “Yo”, the hull surged forward. I could feel and see the three guys in front of me. They looked composed, relaxed. I can hear their breathing. The 500m mark buoy passed by. I had a look and could see Germany a length behind. We had a deck on the Ukraine. Estonia was still a length ahead. They were the next target. Only first two were to go through straight to the final. We were on track. Nothing could stop us now. Speed was 1’25/500. 2 seconds faster than our opposition at that point. We were moving! I tell you all those things because I have seen them again and again. I have dreamt about it. I have replayed the movie in my head over and over again. I will never forget this wave. It was maybe bigger than the other ones. I am not even sure. It struck our boat at the wrong time and at the wrong place. I can still see the blade hitting the wave and going up in the air. It looked for a moment that it was weightless. It turned around and Rob ended up with the blade in his hand and the handle in the water. A nice and smooth 180°. But no judge to mark the performance. Everything stopped. I could hear Rob letting out a massive and loud “F***”. But there was nothing we could do. By the time the oar was back in place, with 400m to go, the race was over for us and we crossed the line last.
From that moment, things went from bad to worse. We are not the only crew who experienced the same thing on that first day. Some of them managed to rise to the challenge such as Kim Brennan in the women’s single scull or the German quad. But for us, it was the beginning of hell. This is where skills and years of experience can make a difference. This wave and this mistake were not the catalyst of a performance to come but it did the very opposite. It inhibited us individually and collectively. We raced the repechage to not make any mistake, to follow the rules. We didn’t race with our heart. I read and hear critics afterwards on our quad about the way we rowed. I agree with the fact that we were not the most technical crew out there. But our engine was our will, our determination and our incredible and indescribable capacity to go beyond our limits. Abilities that we had forged during countless hours of training sessions that I would not dare to describe here. We raced for each other. I found in Canada, and with all due respect to all my crewmates who I rowed with over the years, the most dedicated and crazy rowers when it comes down to dealing with pain. That’s it. That’s Canada. That’s the culture. That’s the legacy. That’s how our predecessors have earned their medals for decades. If this engine stalls, there is nowhere to go.
One cannot invent or buy experience. One cannot invent the skills in a particular boat. In this case, the men’s quad. I know by experience in France that the years of failure are worth much more than the very few years of success. In 2001, the U23 French quad started the adventure. 7 years later, only one remained from that year and was standing on the podium in Beijing. Jonathan Coeffic knew more than anyone else that day what it took to be there. Years of hard work, dozens of rowers, a last place at the 2004 Olympics, countless B finals, medals at world cups that showed the potential. But potential is fully used only if tenacity, dedication, transmission of skills and capacity to understand your defeat are part of the equation. There was no secret or luck when everything started to be “easier” in 2007. When in 2008 we had an average semifinal at the Games, we made it to the final. Our common base and our collective skills allowed us to raise our game and succeed. But we owe this performance to all the guys before us who cleared the path of mines.
Did I arrive in Canada at the wrong time? I think I arrived at a moment of transition. At a moment when a new project started. It is exciting and fulfilling. It was a gamble to be able to become a main actor in the men’s quad in a few years. We could have medalled. Even won. I truly believe it but it would have taken a bit of luck. Luck in regard of our daily performance spectrum. The key is to build a base speed as a crew, physically and technically that allows you to perform efficiently at anytime and anywhere. You know what to expect. We didn’t have this. We could have very good days and very bad days. It takes time, miles, synergy and a common mold for anyone who jumps in to be able to blend in. This is where the Germans in the quad or the British in the four make the difference. Look at the latter. From Redgrave to Pinsent to Cracknell to Reed to Gregory. Know your event, your opposition, your crew. If Gregory retires tomorrow, there will still be a member of the 2016 crew who will transmit the baton to the next generation. One cannot invent this experience.
It is obvious that even if you stack a boat with Olympic medalists, the Canadian quad is still at the genesis of the process. We have to own it and build on it. Giving up and letting the “it was better before” have the better would be a total failure. Canada would lose another 4 years of knowledge and experience. I can’t judge if going for another boat than an 8 was a good move in 2012. It was probably not the best way to build up on the experience at that time. Now it seems like the media is going on a crusade where the Holy Grail is the Men’s 8. But here we are, four years later. What do we do? Start over again? Rowing is over in Rio. Like in every sport and in every federation, things are going to settle. Decisions and strategies for the coming quadrennial will be made soon. I hope that long-term plans will be in the center of those decisions and that raw results won’t dictate too much the future of our program.
Could have things been done better? When something is not going your way, it is easy to focus on the negative aspects instead of the positive ones. It is easy to forget all the great moments we’ve had. However, I think we just started in the past year to find what the quad requires in terms of team, skills, details,...etc. I believe that our management underestimated the task in a pure “quadruple scull” point of view. That’s probably the biggest mistake. We will probably debrief the topic as a team. I fought a lot to raise awareness about the complexity and the importance of taking care of details for a quad. This is not just a matter of watts and body angles. It might be easy to say this afterwards but last September I knew we were going to run out of time. Even though people might say that we had lots of time, the last thing to do is to waste it. If I could have condensed time, I would have done it. This Canadian quad has the potential to succeed. The rest is a matter of time, project management and a few dollars well spent.
I would like to thank all the people who were part of this incredible journey. We are just the tip of the iceberg and you witnessed the story while supporting us in the highs and the lows.
What’s next? I don’t know what I am going to do yet. It was a crazy and incredible journey. I am proud of it but it took its toll. People might only see the medals in an athlete’s career. And there is everything we can’t see. Everything we did on a daily basis. The bonds we created. The friendships we forged. The challenges we overcame. These are the things that characterize who we really are. This quadrennial was a concentrated example. I still have a lot to give, to experience, to learn. Rowing is just a vector. Some people ask me if that’s the end of my rowing career. My answer is simple. As long as I like what I do, I am happy. I am lucky to do what I do. However, I need to swallow the frustration. I need to recover. I need to see what is going to happen within our team.
Some might say that there is lots of time before 2020...but it’s tomorrow. If that’s the scale then I am going to sleep on it because things always look better in the morning.
“The adventure goes on...”