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Canadian kayaker Mark de Jonge savours trip to London after late injury

08/09/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/08/2012 05:12 EDT
WINDSOR, England - Not many of us exercise with an 80-pound dumbbell. Even fewer drop one on their finger and still make it to the Olympics.

Perhaps only Mark de Jonge can lay claim to both.

Restored to health, the muscular 28-year-old from Halifax opens his Olympic campaign on Friday in the K-1 200-metre heats.

His Olympic dream seemed over in mid-April when he broke the middle finger of his left hand in the gym just three weeks ahead of the Canadian Olympic trials at Lake Lanier, Ga.

He was doing a dumbbell bench press on one side when he lost his balance.

"It was kind of a freak accident," he said. "I've done (that exercise) so many times before."

He put his hand down on the ground for balance, having to throw the weight away to do so. Unfortunately it did not go as far as he had planned.

One side of the dumbbell hit the ground. The other smashed his hand.

The good news was that it was a small break and the bone wasn't displaced.

But at the time — the accident during a training camp in Indian Harbour Beach, Fla. — he feared missing out on London. Given he had left the sport after not making the Beijing team, that possibility was especially painful.

"There was a whole lot of thoughts happening at one time, I couldn't really pick one but that was definitely one of them," he said. "I'm just really glad that it all worked out."

He remembers waiting for the X-rays fervently hoping his hand was just bruised.

"The doctor just came in and bluntly said 'Yup, you won't be paddling for six to eight weeks.' I just sank down into the chair. But I had a whole bunch of people looking after me ... Just knowing that there was so many people that were the best at who they do, all behind me, gave me a lot of confidence going through that."

His finger was put in a splint. The next day, de Jonge was pondering braces that might help him paddle with the injury.

On his phone, de Jonge carries a picture showing at least a dozen kinds of braces.

"I was basically freaking out, saying 'I need to do this. It's going to hurt but I have to do it,'" he conceded. "The brace ended up not really working because the slightest pressure ended up hurting me."

He went home to Halifax and did what he could to stay in shape. He was told that if he worked one side of his body, he'd get a 60 per cent gain on the other side.

"So I just worked 60 per cent harder on that one side," he said. "Made up to 100 per cent on my left side."

Four weeks later, he started doing light paddles on the water.

"It's 100 per cent now, which is surprising given that it was zero per cent a while again," he said. "I was at 100 per cent for (Olympic) trials at the end of June."

De Jonge had originally qualified an Olympic berth for Canada in the K-1 200 metres with his sixth-place finish at last year's world championships.

His federation delayed the trials to see who would be in that boat until de Jonge healed. In June, he won the last spot on the Olympic canoe-kayak team by defeating teammate Richard Dober Jr. in an unofficial world best time of 33.804.

The time does not count because it was not an international meet.

"But I mean it's an Olympic course (from 1996) and I've raced there many times before and never came close to that time, so for me it's a good feeling to know I can go that fast," de Jonge said.

The injury may have turned into a blessing. De Jonge says getting through it and then handling the pressure to perform to win his Olympic place in the delayed trials "was huge for me."

"It made me wake up every day thinking 'OK, I need to do everything that I can to get faster today.' And that's kind of stayed with me on the water now too."

At five foot 11 and weighing 188 pounds, de Jonge's upper body is an inverted slab of muscle.

He started kayaking at 13 but stepped back from the sport after failing to qualify for the 2008 Olympics.

Canadian coach Fred Jobin pulled him back some two years ago after it was decided that the 500-metre race would be replaced by the 200 metres at the Games. The distance has been contested at the worlds for more than a decade.

"Everything can happen," Jobin said of the shorter distance. "Small mistakes can make the difference."

While away from the sport, de Jonge finished his engineering degree at Dalhousie University and got a job with Stantec, an engineering consulting company. He's still with them, but has been on leave for the last year and a half to focus on the Olympics.

But he remains connected to his company.

"They're all really supporting me in a big way right now," he said.

De Jonge is no stranger to the Olympic venue. He won a bronze medal at the test event at Eton Dorney last September. But the London field is stacked and he says anything can happen in such a short race.

Meanwhile, coaches are still figuring out the 200 strategy, according to Jobin.

"You cannot maintain full speed for 30 seconds, it's impossible," he said.

The start is all-important, to get momentum for the boat. "But we're still trying to figure out what's the best race profile."

De Jonge, however, says the reality of the race is simple.

"You're going as hard as possible the whole time, but your speed starts to drop off. You just can't help that, you just fill up with lactic acid and slow down. But you're still going as hard as possible and it's still pretty fast," he explained.

"There's absolutely no pacing at all," he added. "It's just training yourself to go as fast as humanely possibly in that time."

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