The Canadians finished last in a tough four-boat heat Saturday. With only the victor advancing directly to the final, the Canadians shut down in the final stretch when it was clear they had no chance of winning and finished in a glacial time of five minutes 37.91 seconds.
"That was a very hard lesson. No one will ever forget that," said six-foot-six, 234-pound captain Malcolm Howard.
"You can't go out and have a performance like that and think anything good of it, besides getting your first race over and done with," he added.
Coxswain Brian Price, from Belleville, Ont., even thought briefly back to 2004, when a top-ranked Canadian boat finished fifth in Athens.
"I won't lie. Definitely some thoughts like that came into my head, like 'Not again,'" said Price. "But then I thought to myself 'Well hold on. We're not at that stage yet. We still have a great shot yet here. We have a great crew. We've done this so many times in practice.'"
The Canadian men bounced back Monday, finishing second in their repechage to advance to the final Wednesday when they will go up against mighty Germany, the U.S., Britain, the Netherlands, and Australia.
They are back in the hunt for a medal, although they will have to lift their game to get one.
"We found our rhythm again," said a relieved Conlin McCabe of Brockville, Ont. "We're back in this. We feel like we're contenders again."
Howard, an Olympic veteran, sounded a note of caution, however.
"Definitely today was a step forward from the heat," said Howard. "But that doesn't mean that there's not more to do."
The Canadians charged hard at Britain in the final half of the race but the British, who led from the start, held on to win in 5:26.85. Canada was second in 5:27.41. The third-place Netherlands and fourth-place Australia also advanced to Wednesday's final. Poland and Ukraine did not move on.
"Now we've had a race that was a stinker, we've had a race that was a very good race," said Peter Cookson, Rowing Canada's high performance director. "And now we have one more opportunity to go in there and put (in) a really fantastic race and lay it down."
Cookson noted that the crew's third 500 metres was the fastest in the 2,000-metre repechage race.
The Canadian men are defending Olympic champions but only have three returning members of that crew — Toronto's Andrew Byrnes, and Howard and Price, both of Victoria — in the London boat.
Howard noted in 2008, at Beijing, when he was a rookie, he had six crewmates and a coxswain who were veterans of the Games.
"For me, it was a little bit easier than it is for some of these guys," he said.
One team member after another said Monday that the crew got too amped up for its first race at the London Games.
"Instead of chanelling it, I think we just got slightly carried away," said Howard.
"We were just a bit out of control," added Price. "We weren't rowing like ourselves. We were rowing like eight people, not a crew. Today we rowed liked eight people, confident, focused on what we could do to help each other and what would go best for the crew. And very calm."
The Canadians also rowed at a lesser rate Monday than the heat (37 strokes a minute compared to 40) but produced more power.
"It felt steady during the race," said Price. "I guess the best way to put it is we had control of ourselves."
Added Byrnes: "This is a much better representation of what sort of crew we are."
And they did it battling a strong crosswind from the start in Lane 1.
There was an initial discussion right after the weekend heat, then the crew talked among themselves. That was followed by a meeting Sunday with coach Mike Spracklen.
"We really hashed it all out," said Price. "And interestingly enough, everyone was on the same page. We were all annoyed, we were all thinking why did we go out there and row like a bunch of kids and lose our heads. That's not the way we do it. And so we got very quickly on the same page.
"(Sunday) we went out and had a good practice and then came out and you saw the dividends from that."
Between races, Howard preached unity to his teammates.
"The first thing I said to the guys after that (opening) race is that we stick together," he recalled. "We don't split apart, we stick together."
Cookson said the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Olympics and the explosion of social media are contributing to the stress athletes feel. It's easier for friends, families and others to reach out to athletes these days.
While Cookson says some of the rowers are avoiding the Internet, there are also some social media team rules. For example, they have to put away their phones two hours before an event.
The Canadians are staying in nearby Slough, close to the venue but short on distractions. The rowers have been amusing themselves — watching TV series like "Game of Thrones," "The Wire," and "Generation Kill." Howard has also been on his iPad, playing "Tower Defense."
"We're not watching the news, that's for sure," McCabe, who rooms with Howard, said with a laugh. "We weren't checking the Internet after our first race."
Germany and the U.S. won their weekend heats to advance directly to the final.
The favoured Germans, who have won the last three world championships and are unbeaten in almost four years, won their weekend heat in 5:25.52. The Americans won the other heat in 5:30.72.
The Canadians come into the Olympics on the back of a world-record performance (5:19.35) at a regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland. But that performance came in a heat and the Canada boat finished third in the final behind Germany and Britain.
The Games info service did not give the Canadians much credit in its preview of Monday's repechage, picking heat runners-up Britain and Australia, plus the Netherlands and Poland to advance.
The other members of the Canada eight are Gabriel Bergen of 100 Mile House, B.C., Doug Csima of Oakville, Ont., Jeremiah Brown of Cobourg, Ont., and Rob Gibson and Will Crothers, both of Kingston, Ont.
The men's four of Will Dean of Kelowna, B.C., Anthony Jacob of Vancouver, Derek O'Farrell of Montreal and Michael Wilkinson of North Vancouver, B.C., finished third in their heat Monday to advance to Thursday's semifinal.
Australia easily won the heat in an Olympic best 5:47.06, ahead of Germany. Canada's time was 5:50.78.
Cookson believes the Canadian four is a dark horse in the field.
"Those are the guys with a lot of spunk. They're the kind of guys that just love to go in there and see what they can do. ... They're always thinking about how they can be a bit better the next day, better tomorrow than what they were today."
"They're young guys and they're fiery and they're good fighters," added coach Terry Paul.
It was a sunny day at the Eton Dorney venue, located about an hour's drive from London, with an enthusiastic crowd enduring lineups to get in and cheer on British crews.
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