WINDSOR, England - Credit the Canadian men's eight with a horrendous start and courageous finish to the Olympic regatta.
After finishing last in their opening heat last Saturday, the Canadians did a lot of soul-searching, absorbed a tongue-lashing from veteran coach Mike Spracklen and then got their act together again.
The roller-coaster ride led to a silver medal Wednesday at Eton Dorney, a tribute to hard work, good character and terrific coaching.
The Canadians won rowing's marquee event at the 2008 Games in Beijing but only had three returning members of that crew — Toronto's Andrew Byrnes, Victoria's Malcolm Howard and coxswain Brian Price of Belleville, Ont. — in the London boat.
Since Beijing, the German eight has ruled the waves. The Germans are unbeaten in almost four years.
Under an overcast sky not too far from Windsor Castle, Germany was unstoppable again although Britain went after the three-time world champions like a hungry dog after a bone. The British — runners-up to Germany at the last two worlds — nosed ahead after 1,000 metres only to be pegged back by Germany, who led by just .27 seconds after 1,500 metres.
In the packed grandstands, the sound billowed along the windswept course as the boats went by and the crowd tried to cheer on the home crew.
But the Brits were done and Canada, whose final 500-metre time was bettered only by Australia, powered past them like a Maple Leaf muscle car for second.
Germany won in five minutes 48.75 seconds ahead of Canada in 5:49.98 and Britain, silver medallists at the last two world championships, staved off a U.S. charge to hang onto third in 5:51.18.
"We knew we'd have to have an amazing race to get on the medal podium," said Conlin McCabe of Brockville, Ont. "Like to get the bronze, even."
They delivered, paying back a debt to 74-year-old coach Mike Spracklen, who addressed the team Sunday after its last-place showing in its opening heat.
Spracklen said he ended the no-holds-barred meeting by making an unusual request.
"I can't remember it word for word, but what I said was 'I have one last request and I've never asked anyone before — win the race for me,'" said Spracklen.
Once on shore Wednesday, the giddy Canadians celebrated as if they had won. It wasn't quite worst to first, but it was close.
Canada started sluggishly at the regatta, finishing last in its heat behind Germany, Britain and the Netherlands. With only the winner advancing directly to the final, the Canadians shut it down and finished well back.
After the race, the Canadians to a man said they had been too amped up. Price said they rowed "like a bunch of kids."
Spracklen put it all in perspective, said Howard, the Canadian captain.
"He knew exactly what happened — the psychology. We went into that race to try and run with the Germans and we just spun out our wheels," Howard said. "He just laid it out bare for us."
For a Canadian crew that set a world record of 5:19.35 in a heat in Lucerne in May, it was a disaster.
Or a reality check.
"Truthfully what happened in that heat was the best possible thing that could happen to us," said Howard. "It set our heads straight. It taught us a lesson that most crews have to learn the hard way.
"A lot of those guys that I raced with in Beijing had a difficult experience in Athens in that final (where a top-ranked Canadian crew finished fifth). And of course it was a heat (here) but the way we got throttled by Germany in that heat it took a lot of focus, it took some incredible coaching by Mike Spracklen to put us back on track and keep us focused."
Spracklen, a native of England whose rowing resume is legendary, did not mince words.
"Nobody knows what to say like Mike knows what to say," said Howard. "Sometimes it hurts. Guys came out of those meetings really hurting. But it was the exact right thing we had to do."
Spracklen was frustrated that the crew had abandoned the plan honed in months of hard training. But he also saw it as a "blessing in disguise."
And they changed tactics as a result.
"What we learned from it was just how much you need to put into the first part of the race," Spracklen said. "So we did practise that in the repechage and then realized that we could take it a step further, which we did for the final.
"So it's crazy really that you put a race plan together in an Olympic Games."
For Spracklen, that's unheard of. His mantra is to practise over and over again. To leave no stone unturned.
It's a hard road, but one his crew is used to travelling. They even trained over Christmas, putting aside family visits.
And when Spracklen talked here, they listened.
The Canadians went out the next day and finished runner-up to Britain in the repechage, moving them into the final.
Instead of going after the Germans in the final, the Canadians focused on their start and then looked to work off other crews. They disposed of Australia, then the Dutch, then Britain.
"Right from our start, just I knew this was going to be good," said Jerry Brown of Cobourg, Ont. "(We) just had to keep pushing, the boat's on a rail. Just keep adding to it. We've got some many horses in that boat."
As the race unfolded, Price drove them on like a tiny Tony Robbins.
"I knew it was tight right across the field coming in that last 250 (metres)," said Brown. "I started seeing black spots. That's when you just get tunnel vision.
"I trust Brian Price so much, I'd trust that guy with my life ... He said 'Boys, we're down two seats to the Brits. We're moving, we're moving.' I thought 'OK, let's get that bronze.' All of a sudden he said 'Boys, we're up a seat on the Brits.' I thought 'Holy crap' — I thought the other version of the word — 'Let's keep going. Let's see what we can get here.'
"Last 10 (strokes, he said) 'We've got the silver. We've got the silver. We're pushing the Germans.' I just emptied it, we all just emptied it."
Howard, a six-foot-six giant of a man, had given so much he was visibly shivering in the post-race news conference tent. It didn't help his teamates had thrown him into the water after the race.
He was handed clothing to put on during the news conference in a bid to stay warm.
Peter Cookson, Rowing Canada's high performance director, said he was confident the Canadians would get a medal. But he didn't know what colour.
On Wednesday, the Germans had the fastest times over each of the first three 500-metre splits, but were only fourth-fastest over the final 500.
Canada was third-fastest over the first three splits, building to show its raw power in the end.
"At 750 (metres), I said 'Guys put on your hard hats. It's time to go to work.,"' said Price. "And they went to work. It was all about just work, work, work. Every stroke."
Cycling along the course in tandem with his boat, Cookson was so caught up in the race that he actually stopped 250 metres from the finish so he could watch it on the big screen.
"I'm extremely proud of them," he said.
"I'm hoping they decide to come back — a lot of them. I know some of them might go on to do different things but I'm hoping the majority of them come back and really put another four to eight years in, because they have a lot to offer."
Spracklen's shadow loomed large over the medal and the crew. As it does over the program.
"Mike is a Scotty Bowman of rowing. A lot of people don't like him and it's hard for him. But you can't argue with the results," said Howard. "You can't argue with what he produces."
Spracklen is not afraid to speak his mind. Earlier in the Games, he spoke out about Rowing Canada's decision to divide the team into different groups.
Cookson said decisions on the coaching staff will be made post-Olympics, by September.
"He's a good coach," Cookson said of Spracklen. "He's been instrumental in getting these guys to where they're at. There's no doubt about that.
In an ideal world would he have Spracklen back, Cookson was asked? His response was measured.
"In an ideal world, we have the best coaches, which could include Mike, that could drive the program forward. We want to move from being a good team to a great team."
As for Spracklen, he said he has a stock answer on his coaching future.
"Rowing is my passion and being involved with athletes like this is why I do it," he added. "I'm 10 years past retirement and while I am wanted, while these athletes want me to coach, then I will continue to coach them.
"There's two things that would stop me. One is my wife's health and the last one is my own health."
Germany, eighth at the Beijing Games, joins Canada (2008) as the only crews since 1984 to win Olympic gold as reigning world champions.
The other members of the Canadian eight are Will Crothers and Rob Gibson of Kingston, Ont., Doug Csima of Oakville, Ont., and Gabe Bergen of 100 Mile House, B.C.
Earlier in the day, Dave Calder and Scott Frandsen, silver medallists from the 2008 Games, advanced to the final of the men's pairs by finishing third in a semifinal dominated by New Zealand.
Heavy favourites Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, who set a world best of 6:08.50 in their opening heat here, romped to victory in 6:48.11 through a headwind/crosswind. Italy was second in 6:55.82 and Canada third in 6.56.47. All three advance to Friday's final.
Doug Vandor of Dewittville, Que., and Morgan Jarvis of Clearwater Bay, Ont., easily won a qualification race sending them to Saturday's C final of the lightweight double sculls.
The two had been seen as a possible medal threat but crashed out of contention after finishing last in their semifinal Tuesday, despite leading for the first 1,000 metres.
The Canadian women's eight goes for gold Thursday, with the Americans their main gold medal rivals.
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