SWIMNEWS ONLINE: April 1997 Magazine Articles

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Neil Harvey

After the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the Canadian Rowing team crept home in shock. A couple of finals were a far cry from the glory of 1984, with six medals in Los Angeles. Something must have changed. Four years later they won four of sixteen possible gold medals in Barcelona. Eighteen people shared them. It was the high point of modern Olympic rowing in Canada. Something must have changed again.

Canadian swimming has come through a similar story: ten medals in Los Angeles followed by a lone silver in Seoul. There would be no rebound in Barcelona however. There, Tewksbury twice made it to the podium with a spectacular win in the 100 backstroke and the medley relay. The rest of the team hid behind those two medals. Something must have stayed the same. Both rowing and swimming require tough, task-oriented athletes, whose preparation involves vast hours of training and technical work. Both have similar histories of club-based international teams and, since 1972, a growing dependency on Sport Canada funding.

For the past eight years, high performance swimming in Canada has been undergoing a self examination. A consistent gap exists between making finals and winning medals at major games. Large performance gaps also exist in many events, and too few high performers improve past the age of twenty. Some gap management may be in order! A Sport Canada funding initiative says a national training centre model should be implemented in order to achieve consistent podium level results at international competition. The concept involves development of resources and staff into a focussed high-performance program in several locations in Canada. Rowing has worked through a similar examination during the same time frame. Perhaps there is a lesson in rowing's solutions.

The modern history of rowing in North America goes back to the mid 1800s when it was a professional sport. Between 1880 and 1932, club rowing became very strong in Canada. Consistent international success was the rule. George Brown, Ned Hanlan, and Jake Gaudaur won many world titles in the late 1800s as professionals. Later Joe Wright Jr., and Lou Scholes were the Henley Royal and Olympic success stories up to the 1932 Olympics. Public popularity was enormous. Huge crowds would welcome their heroes' return from international success.

The next great phase, 1950 to 1964, is known as the Frank Read era. Canada's first Olympic rowing Gold medal was won by a Read coxless four in 1956. The second followed in Tokyo in 1964. George Hungerford and Roger Jackson were spares for the highly rated UBC eight. They entered the coxless pair-oars as a way to stay in shape, just in case. The two Read-trained rowers won the event! It was to be the only medal for rowing at the 1964 Games. Read tied the development of his club to students at the University of British Columbia. He reasoned that equipment and funding would come from the club and athletes from the university. It proved a successful combination. The lessons taught by Read may not have sunk in, however, as Olympic rowing results for the next 20 years are hard to find.

For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Rowing Canada

The national women's program, which really began in the early 1970s, was beginning to flourish. At this time the Federal government was greatly increasing funding to sports in preparation for the 1976 Olympics. Domestic rowing improved immediately but the international program was slow to get going. Another development, which would prove significant, was a European move to centralize training for some national teams. Canada made some tentative steps in this direction with the help of the federal government, finally setting up formal centres in the mid 1980s. This was a major change, since the history of rowing success in Canada was from club athletes. Canadian rowers have won medals in 13 of the 24 modern Olympic Games, all but the past two under the club-based system.

After the six-medal haul in Los Angeles, Rowing Canada moved to establish a centralized national team. As expected, there was some resistance. Several unfocussed years followed, ending with the disastrous 1988 Olympics. Some drastic changes jolted the rowing association out of its internecine bureaucracy. At the time, Rowing Canada had quite a job keeping the association afloat. It was over $200,000 in debt and was dependent on Sport Canada for 82% of its funding. A major restructuring was in order.

Unclear goals, bad morale, and board members at each others' throats forced rowing into survival mode. Once the financial situation had been rescued, a couple of key administrators and two head coaches were hired for the national centres. Mike Spracklen, a renowned English coach, was to run the Victoria centre and Al Morrow, a very successful Canadian coach, would be in London. These moves proved to be central to the success of the new model.

Janet Beverley of Sport Canada feels that, after 1988, rowing put a strong system in place. They recruited people with skills the system required, made good decisions, reduced dependence on government funding and focussed on athletes with a real chance of success. Perhaps the best decision was giving the head coaches and VP Technical both the responsibility and authority to do their jobs. Strong leadership was needed and rowing acquired it. Janet feels this was significant to their results since 1988.

Mike Spracklen spoke about two keys to success: a very clear picture of the goal, and constant communication about the work required to reach it. An atmosphere of world-level training was essential. It did not hurt to have six world class rowers in Victoria waiting for him. Added to this were another half dozen of the world's best women training under Morrow in the London centre. The National team goal was the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics. The role of the national centre was to achieve that goal. Everything else was athlete development, the domain of rowing clubs. What did this centre approach have going for it?

Spracklen introduced singles and pairs training for the eights boat. This required each person to compete for their spot on a regular basis. Expectations based on a world standard raised the level of training quickly. The volume of training was also raised to extremely high levels. Spracklen reasoned that to win the Olympic gold medal, 40 hours per week were required. To get in the medals, 30 hours were needed and to make the finals at the Olympics, 20 plus hours would suffice. He accepted any rower who was fast enough, and who would follow his program. Fortunately for rowing, there are many who present themselves for a chance to train at the national centres.

Rowers wishing to be selected to the National travelling team need to demonstrate world-class performance as measured against a "gold medal" standard each year. In 1992 the women's team was consistently over 100% of standard prior to the Olympics. Rowers not up to standard do not travel. For various reasons the rowing team is not lacking in motivation. Brian Richardson, upon arrival from Australia in 1993, was amazed at the amount of work the team was prepared to do. A tradition of work ethic permeates the team. Preparation is everything. This is part of the national team culture. Everyone is there for the same reason. It is a culture few clubs can achieve.

An atmosphere of intense daily competition between a group of rowers aiming to win at the world level is not easily duplicated elsewhere. Clubs may have a good rower or two, but this alone is not enough to produce the competitive edge required to win. Ideal rowers are ones who have complete mental toughness to do everything asked of them, and then some. Terry Paul, the current National team coach, believes the rower who does the work, all the work, has the best chance for long term success. Terry implied the specific method used to train rowers is not as critical as the need for all to believe in the program. It is a focussed, competitive environment.

Terry was the coxswain for the Canadian gold medal eight at the 1992 Olympics. He took over from Brian Richardson, the Australian who guided the team to success in Atlanta. As the cox, Terry also worked closely with Mike Spracklen in the years leading up to Barcelona. His background seems perfectly suited to the job. Eight years apprenticing with two of the best coaches in the world has given him great experience and the respect of the national team rowers. The methods Terry uses echo some of the key lessons he learned from his mentors.

Dave Dixon, head coach of the 2000-member Victoria City Rowing Club (VCRC), suggests his club has no interest in working with rowers at the Olympic level. The needed financial and physical resources are lacking, while introductory, junior, and masters programs take up all their time. "Get everyone rowing!" is a club goal. They also pride themselves on getting as many rowers as possible in front of the national coach. But after a rower graduates to the national team, they belong there. There is no one area of the club that has a greater importance than another. The idea that rowing should become popular with a larger segment of the population will have a beneficial effect at all levels.

The vision is to develop grass roots programs with fun and life-long participation as key elements. Each level in the club has a clear next step, a goal to work towards. That is the framework from which to build a self-sustaining program. Dave believes the best coaches should be at the junior and development levels. They should be the CEOs of the clubs and they should be receiving the highest levels of pay. The position calls for entrepreneurs, a concept few coaches have the opportunity to explore. One major distinction between rowing and swimming is the number of full-time coaches. Rowing has very few while swimming has hundreds. VCRC has over 80 part-time coaches! Currently there are 80 registered clubs in Canada with a total of over 10,000 rowers. The numbers break down to 5000 in recreational and masters rowing and 2500 each in senior and junior competitive.

Steady growth in club rowing and a clear role for the national team gives rowing the expectation that continued international success will be a matter of course. The national team also becomes a part of the marketing of rowing. Alan Roaf, director of Rowing Canada, said high profile rowers become catalysts for the development levels of rowing. They are a part of the cycle, not an end in themselves. The national team is a critical but equal part of the model for rowing development. Marketing the sport effectively helps develop funding into the future. With a clear model for the sport, funding decisions are fairly straightforward.

For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Rowing Canada

This story illustrates the model rowing has used to great effect. The national team is a separate entity. The club development process is another clearly defined entity. Once high performance results were evident, the marketing of the sport could continue apace. The national team is a catalyst to developing numbers at the club level and so on up the development cycle. Many national team rowers work as part-time coaches to supplement their incomes. This role also serves to reinforce the marketing of the whole sport.

Marketing, according to Roaf, is not just about developing funding for programs. It is about a broadening of public interest in the sport as a whole. It requires participation by all members of the rowing community, not just the national office and the national team. With regards to private funding, the corporate fit with Rowing Canada is important. When asked if a company could request technical changes in return for its support. Roaf laughed, saying the national program was very clearly thought out and would not need suggestions of this type. Ironically, Rowing is currently at the tailor being fitted for a new corporate sponsor. The world of amateur sport in Canada's hockey and beer media culture can be tenuous no matter how good the model.

The key changes rowing made are apparent. A quote from Mike Spracklen sums up his attitude at the time. Two factors lead to the gold medal in the program: leadership and a very competitive environment. In addition, the clubs, national team, and the national office have become very clear about their roles. They understand that co-operation makes the model viable now, and in the future. The drastic measures used during the 1988 to 1992 era shocked the system. They were marked by clear thinking and a lack of politics. Now that the (gold) dust has settled and the models of development and national team are in place, a new sense of vision can continue. There are still some grumpy old men around, as with any sport, but rowing chooses the high road instead, now that it knows where the stream leads.

For swimming, a clear goal is still needed. Leadership may be lacking in key areas. A very competitive senior domestic program will be needed to fill up these new centres. The club model needs a serious look. Coaches need to become more entrepreneurial and have a greater stake in clubs. This will challenge some deeply ingrained club thinking. In order for lasting change to take place, the right people must be in place, the right environment must be created, and as Terry Paul said, everyone has to believe it will work.

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