07/27/2012 02:25 EDT | Updated 09/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadian eights look to climb podium as Olympic rowing competition begins

LONDON - They may be defending Olympic champions but a revamped Canadian men's eight crew — along with everyone else — is playing second fiddle to the Germans in the race for London gold.

After a fourth-place finish in Beijing, the Canadian women's eight are looking to overhaul the Americans.

Both storylines start unfurling this weekend as the Olympic rowing heats open at Eton Dorney, located some 60 kilometres west of London.

It's an important part of the Canadian Olympic push, with rowing perhaps able to produce as many as five medals if the planets align. The eights both feature in that very-best-case scenario, along with Dave Calder and Scott Frandsen in the coxless pair, Lindsay Jennerich and Patricia Obee and Morgan Jarvis and Douglas Vandor in their respective lightweight double sculls.

"Both of them are definitely top medal contenders and are both really focused on being on the top of the podium," Peter Cookson, Rowing Canada's director of high performance, said of the eights. "Both boats believe they can get there, they've been training with that in mind.

"Nothing comes easy when it comes to the Olympic Games but a lot of the guys and a lot of the women have been through this. They know what it takes and they're going to be ready for it."

Veteran coxswain Brian Price, in his third Olympics, concedes the men's eight goes into the Games as an underdog.

"I mean let's be honest, the Germans have won the worlds three years in a row, they just won the World Cup again and the British threw everything they had at them. They're clearly the top dogs here," he said.

Price, a 36-year-old from Belleville, Ont., who now calls Victoria home, also points to Australia, Britain, the Netherlands and Poland as quality crews.

Earlier this month, the Germans demonstrated their superiority again by winning at the Samsung World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland. The British were second and Canada third.

The 2008 Olympic story was all about redemption for the Canadian men's eight, which finished fifth at Athens four years earlier despite coming into the Games ranked No. 1 in the world.

With just Price and two others back from the Beijing boat, it's a whole new ball game. And Price says while the Canadians may be young, they are also very powerful and very hungry.

"On water, they want to win just as badly as those guys in Beijing did," said Price. "And I want to help deliver that for them."

For Price, that means not repeating the mistakes of the past. That includes remembering the painful lessons learned from 2004.

"There was a point in the race that was crucial and we got complacent," he said. "We didn't do consciously, it was unconscious.

"And so now I'm very aware of never being complacent in any race, whether you're up or down. You never ever be complacent. It's the classic 3-0 lead in hockey — 3-0 lead in hockey is the worst lead and we see it time and time again. You think you've got it and you don't."

The hunger of the crew was shown when they opted to train through Christmas.

"No one went home to see their families or anything," said Will Crothers of Kingston, Ont. "It's just been all about getting on top of that podium in London."

It's the same for the women, who were runners-up to the Americans by just 0.3 seconds in Lucerne, with the Dutch taking third.

The women can count on 52-year-old coxswain Leslie Thompson-Willie, named to her eighth Olympic team.

"She is really a rock in that boat in terms of keeping everything steady and balanced and going forward," said Cookson. "She's been a dream to have around in terms of getting this team prepared.

"And even in the women's eight, there's really only two or three first-time Olympians in this boat. So the rest have all been through this, they know what to expect, they know what they're getting into and incredibly focused."

Thompson-Willie, from London, Ont., already has an Olympic gold, two silver and a bronze. Not to mention the respect of her crew.

"She really is an amazing little gem we have," said Krista Guloien of Port Moody, B.C. "I think I probably got to know her better in the last couple of years and really appreciate her. I don't know it any other way because I've got to have her in the boat with me but I can't imagine it without her. She's very, very, very special."

Guloien admits just talking about Thompson-Willie gets her emotional.

"If she probably walked in and yelled something from over there, I would probably react and jump. You know her voice very well, when she says anything, we trust her wholeheartedly. She knows her stuff."