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Kayaker Mark de Jonge Wins Olympic Bronze On Final Day Of Canoe-Kayak Competition

08/11/2012 04:46 EDT | Updated 10/11/2012 05:12 EDT
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WINDSOR, ENGLAND - AUGUST 11: Bronze medalist Mark de Jonge of Canada kisses his medal during the medal ceremony for the Men's Kayak Single (K1) 200m Canoe Sprint on Day 15 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Eton Dorney on August 11, 2012 in Windsor, England. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
WINDSOR, England - The addition of the K-1 200-metre race to the Olympic program made Canadian kayaker Mark de Jonge feel "useful again."

And on Saturday, it produced a bronze medal and a beaming smile for the 28-year-old muscle man from Halifax.

Britain's Ed McKeever, a former world champion known as "the Usain Bolt of the water," won gold in 36.246 seconds. Spain's Saul Craviotto took silver in 36.540, ahead of de Jonge in 36.657.

De Jonge had walked away from elite competition in the sport after an injury-plagued 2008 saw him miss out on the Olympic team for Beijing. But the decision to replace the 500-metre distance with the 200-metre sprint in London lured him back to his boat.

"I was always racing 1,000 metres and 500 metres. And I was able to do OK while doing school and whatnot, but it felt like swimming upstream really," he explained. "So doing the 200, I'm just so much better suited to that. And I knew that I had a future finally, a really good future, and made a plan from there. And executed it."

The five-foot-11, 188-pound De Jonge, whose torso is an inverted slab of muscle, is built for the sprint. His race is over in less than 40 seconds and he attacks the water at a mind-boggling 180 strokes a minute.

The 1,000-metre distance is more about pacing. There is no such thing over 200 metres. Racers start paddling like a combine harvester and don't stop. The one who can keep it up wins.

"I'm good at blasting off the line, but maybe not holding it for more than 200 metres," de Jonge said with a laugh.

At the start, it's unleash the beast. Or as de Jonge put it, "open up like a shaken pop can."

"I gave everything," he said of Saturday's final. "I ended up kind of dying a little at the end but that's to be expected when you go all out."

McKeever had the best start, however, and no one could catch him.

"Maybe the start was not the start we planned ," said Fred Jobin, de Jonge's coach. "But everything else — he came back in the end — was really good. If the start would have been better, I think the result would have been different. But we have to be happy. It's the first Olympics, it's really good. I know we're all happy about that."

Gold was the goal, but bronze felt pretty good in a race where anything can happen.

"I know we've had a pretty successful games," said de Jonge. "We've had a lot of bronze medals. I was really hoping to have another gold (for Canada). But I'm so happy just to get on the podium, It's the highest level of competition you can imagine here. Just to be among the top three is really special."

The Eton Dorney venue produced five medals for Canada: two silver in rowing (men's and women's eights) and a silver and two bronze in canoe-kayak (Adam van Koeverden won the silver in the K-1 1,000 while de Jonge and Mark Oldershaw, in the C-1 1,000, earned bronze).

Of the two federations, CanoeKayak Canada leaves the games happier.

Its slightly loose goal was one medal and three top-six finishes, any one of which could turn into a medal. They got three medals and a seventh-place finish from the K-2 200 team of Hugues Fournel of Lachine, Que., and Ryan Cochrane of Windsor, N.S.

Rowing Canada had eyed three to five medals.

De Jonge won both his heat (35.396) and semifinal (35.595) Friday to advance to the final on the last day of canoe-kayak competition.

McKeever also won his heat and semifinal, posting the fastest time Friday (35.087).

De Jonge came to the start line feeling the support of everyone back home.

"I wasn't nervous or anxious. Just really filled with good feelings and I knew that was a good sign coming into the race."

The support was visible after the race, De Jonge had a Canadian flag signed by members of his Maskwa Aquatic Club back home draped over his shoulders as he met the media.

His Olympic dream was almost derailed in April when he broke a finger. He dropped an 80-pound dumbbell on his hand after he lost balance during a workout in Florida. "A freak accident," he called it.

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, he feared missing out on London. Given he had left the sport after not making the Beijing team, that possibility was especially painful.

A friend called it "just the dramatic moment in the movie that is Mark's life."

"I'm really glad that it kind of played out that way," De Jonge said.

De Jonge was focusing on his engineering career when Jobin called him to come back in 2010, pointing to the introduction of the 200-metre event at the Olympics.

The distance has been contested at the worlds for more than a decade.

"Everything can happen," Jobin said of the 200-metre race. "Small mistakes can make the difference."

Jobin said de Jonge was in after just five minutes of their telephone call.

"It was really easy and I think it was a good decision for him," Jobin said. "Mark, maybe five, six years ago, nobody would think he could be on the podium some day."

But de Jonge said it took some soul-searching before he fully committed.

"I struggled with it. I was pretty satisfied with my life not paddling. It was hard ... but I've made the right decision and I'm really happy about that."

"I think my biggest fear was trying as hard as I could this year and find out it wasn't worth it," he added. "And it has been totally worth it. It's a great experience."

The commitment turned out to be full-on. He spent most of the year training in Florida and, after a month nursing his finger back home, spent the weeks before the games training in Quebec and France.

There was little time for friends, family and girlfriend.

De Jonge said he came back for one thing: "the feeling of a perfect race: the time, measured in seconds and fractions of seconds, when the effort of years of training and preparation pays off."

His Olympic final "wasn't quite what I had at (the national) trials," he said.

That's when he set an unofficial world best time of 33.804, a time that does not count because it was not an international meet.

On Saturday, he could not keep up the punishing pace to run McKeever down.

"I think the second half suffered a little. I had a lot of fatigue in the second half but I just hung on and hoped for the best, shot my boat across the line and just waited for the results."

De Jonge, who started kayaking at 13, is no stranger to the Olympic venue. He won a bronze medal at the test event at Eton Dorney last September.

He leaves the London Games with "three really good races." And a good feeling.

He left the sport after missing out on Beijing, saying he really he didn't have four more years in him.

"But I did," he laughed. "Things all fell into place."

De Jonge isn't ready to commit to four more years but did say "I think it's something where if I didn't want to paddle any more, I would know it. And I don't want to say that yet."

Jobin is already planning for the future with his star sprinter.

"We're all excited now. We see that the program is working. But next time we'll do much better."

De Jonge had originally qualified for 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.

A graduate of Dalhousie, de Jonge is currently on leave from Stantec, an engineering consulting company.

Fournel and Cochrane, not to be confused with the Canadian swimmer of the same name, had a good start but faded in the windy conditions.

"We believe we had a better race than we did yesterday. It just didn't turn out the way we wanted it," said Cochrane, a bit of a showman who cupped his ear to hear the applause as the Canadians were introduced prior to the race.

"But we did what we wanted. It's hard to explain, we're going up and down right now with the emotions. But seventh, we have to be somewhat happy with that. It's a respectable position but I mean everybody wants to be on the podium."

Said Fournel: "I couldn't be more proud to be Ryan Cochrane's partner, that's for sure. And to be a Canadian as well."

Jason McCoombs, a 19-year-old from Dartmouth, N.S., seen as a future star, finished fifth in the C-1 200 'B' final.

"It was really fun, but a little bit disappointing," he said of his Olympics. "But it was definitely a good experience and something that I'll use in the future."

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