12/19/2012 02:46 EST | Updated 02/18/2013 05:12 EST

Bronze bonanza in London still something to be proud of, says Tewksbury

TORONTO - Canada's performance at the London Olympics may have been bathed in a bronze hue. It may have prompted cheeky chants of "We're No. 3!" and nicknames like "Bronzilla."

But the Canadian storyline was a complicated one, says Mark Tewksbury.

It began eight months before the Summer Games with the sudden death of champion horse Hickstead, and continued through several teeth-gnashing months that saw some of Canada's top medal hopes felled by injuries and a couple of others fail to make the team altogether.

It was enough to keep Tewksbury, Canada's chef de mission, awake at night.

In the end, Canada claimed 18 medals in London. Twelve of them were bronze and just one was gold, captured by young trampolinist Rosie MacLennan.

But from Tewksbury's vantage point as the leader of the Canadian team in London, the squad's performance may as well have been golden.

"So many medals, just to make the top three is so intense, and the depth of field in the summer sports. . .it's truly deep," he said this week in a phone interview. "From where I was sitting, it was like 'Oh my gosh, thank goodness we got a bronze,' that could have been a fifth or an eighth, or whatever it might have been."

Canada finished 13th in total medals, sandwiched between Ukraine and Hungary, and 35th in the gold-medal tally, between Norway and Sweden.

Divers Jennifer Abel and Emilie Heymans were the first Canadians to march to the podium, claiming bronze in the synchronized three-metre springboard.

Mark de Jonge capped off Canada's medal run, winning bronze in the kayak K1 200 metres a day before the Games came ended to the music of the Spice Girls, George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys.

In between, Canadian athletes crashed, cried, protested, celebrated, were disqualified and tasted redemption. There were moments of agony and unexpected joy.

MacLennan, just 23 at the time, broke the team's gold-medal drought on Day 8, bouncing, twisting and somersaulting her way to victory in women's trampoline.

On Day 10, Canada's women's team captured the country's imagination with a 4-3 extra-time semifinal loss to the United States. Held at legendary Old Trafford — the "Theatre of Dreams" on Matt Busby Way — striker and captain Christine Sinclair cemented her spot as a Canadian sports hero by recording a hat trick, then boldly called out official Christiana Pedersen for her shocking call on 'keeper Erin McLeod that may have cost Canada the victory.

Three days later, a weary women's team would defeat France for bronze, claiming Canada's first medal in a traditional team sport since 1936.

Britain clearly came out the big winner as events were held against glorious backdrops such as Buckingham Palace and the Tower Bridge.

There were minimal scandals and the Olympic transportation system ran smoothly, erasing everyone's fears of gridlock. British soldiers, comprising what had to be the world's friendliest army, stepped in to act as security guards — and unlikely Olympic hosts. Stars such as Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps did their part.

As for Canada's time in London, Tewksbury said there's been much reflecting since the curtain came down on the Games four months ago. On his personal highlights, the former swimming star said there are way too many to mention.

"The entire experience was just so intense, every day was like four days in one," he said from his Calgary home. "Really varying different memories. Some performance related, some experience related, some just being the job of chef and having to be there for the team."

The 44-year-old said he'll always remember speaking with Jason Burnett after the former Olympic silver medallist crashed on the trampoline, and Dylan Armstrong after he finished a disappointing fifth in the shot put.

"So those were the tough ones," Tewksbury said. "Going to the field of play and seeing Catharine Pendrel after her (ninth-place finish) in mountain biking. . . tough, tough ones.

"Equally as exciting, obviously, was being there for some of the medals. Missing Rosie but getting the text that she won gold and just freaking out. Being there for Brent Hayden's bronze in swimming which is probably the one moment I really let my guard down, and emotions overtook me just because of course it was my sport."

Canada, as well, may have left some medals on the table.

There were the athletes who didn't qualify. Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, who claimed bronze in hurdles for Canada's only track and field medal four years earlier at the Beijing Games, had an uncharacteristically shaky race at the Olympic trials in Calgary and didn't make the team.

Three-time world boxing champion Mary Spencer didn't qualify for London, where women's boxing made its Olympic debut.

There were the injuries. Three-time world champ Alexandre Despatie cracked his head on the diving board a few weeks before London and was sidelined for most of the crucial run-up to the Games. He finished 11th in the three-metre springboard.

Former world No. 1 triathlete Paula Findlay was sidelined by a hip injury for most of the year leading up the Olympics. The heartbreaking image of the sobbing 23-year-old crossing the finish line in last place will be one of the most enduring of the Games.

There were the disqualifications and protests.

"Part of me will never get over Custio Clayton robbed of a medal, and the 4x100 relay," Tewskbury said.

Clayton and the host country's Freddie Evans boxed to a 14-14 draw in a quarter-final bout. Evans was cautioned three times for hooking a forearm around the back of Clayton's head, a tactic that is supposed to come with a point deduction. Yet, the referees awarded the win to Evans. Canada protested but lost.

Canada's 4x100-metre men's relay team thought it had won bronze but jubilation quickly turned to devastation when officials determined Jared Connaughton had stepped on the line on the third leg, resulting in disqualification.

"Those two were two medals that really were there," Tewksbury said. "It's not, 'Oh if only Dylan (Armstrong) had had a better day, or Clara (Hughes in cycling) had made it from fifth to third. Those were a whole bunch of other medals. But we actually had 20 in hand."

Instead it would be just 18, which tied the amount won four years earlier in Beijing. The lone gold was two less than the team claimed in China as well as four years before that in Athens.

Still, not so bad, Tewksbury says.

"If we had won 14 gold in the summer (Olympics, as the team did at the Vancouver Winter Games), and then only won one in London, then yes, obviously this is a huge issue and real indicator that something was off," he said. "But to go from three gold to one, it's like, really?

"I know it's worth noting but I don't see it as any form of crises or sign of a failure of this team."

Strong performances by Canada's young athletes also bodes well for four years from now when the curtain comes up on the next Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Sixty-two per cent of Canadian athletes in London were first-time Olympians, and a few of those were among the team's brightest stars.

MacLennan, who worked as a volunteer at the Vancouver Games, will be just 27 in Rio. Olympic rookie Derek Drouin, who soared to a bronze medal in high jump, will be 26.

Among other young athletes to leave their mark on London and serve notice for Rio:

— Judo's Antoine Valois-Fortier won a surprise bronze medal, Canada first in the sport since his coach Nicholas Gill won silver in 2000.

— Hard-serving Milos Raonic played his way into the history books. His second-round loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in London was part of the longest three-set tennis match in Olympic history, their third set alone lasted a gut-busting three hours. He'll be just 25 in Rio.

— Findlay, assuming she can regain her health, could be among the triathlon contenders in Brazil.

— Cam Levins, a distance runner from tiny Black Creek, B.C., has his eyes on Rio, where he'll still be just 27 years old. Levins held his own in a star-studded 10,000-metre field in finishing 11th and then battled a chest ailment to cross 14th in the 5,000.

As Tewksbury put it: "What was so exciting was the youth and enthusiasm of the new people at the Olympic Games. That kind of energy was a I think really what helped us be so relentless and be consistent through the Games and get such a nice outcome at the end."