July 28, 2017

20 years later: a reflection of the Canada Summer Games experience.

Today, the 50th anniversary of the Canada Summer Games kicks off in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, as 20 years ago, at around the same time, I was prepping to go to the Canada Games as part of the BC Sprint Canoe & Kayak team. That year, the games were being held in Brandon, Manitoba.

The event stands out as one of the worst sporting events of my entire life. But maybe one of the best. We don't get to the 'best' before giving the context of the 'worst', first, so my apologies: it’s a long story.

Building to a games takes years. It doesn't happen overnight. Imagine my dismay, then, when a week before the games, my paddle was stolen from an airport, where I left it unattended in its travel case for a moment. Stupid, and costly. To lose your paddle is not insignificant. It’s not an off-the-rack item that you can just go out and buy a replacement for. With only a week left until the Games, there was no hope of getting a proper replacement. I was doomed to paddle at the Canada Games—the biggest competition of my life at that point—with a paddle that was too short for me, with a blade twist angle that I was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with.

Team BC Canoe & Kayak, gathered on an early morning,
waiting for the shuttle bus to take us to the race course. 
Arriving at the games, there was another external pressure that was unnecessarily being put on my team boat partner and I. A coach, not associated with the games in an official capacity and who shall remain nameless, was relentlessly harassing us about some equipment related to a boat that we ultimately had nothing to do with. Maybe if I was a mentally more focused athlete at the time, I could have tuned out that noise. I let it bother me, and it didn’t help me prepare for my races. Our dorms didn’t help with focus, either. The basketball team staying directly above us bounced their balls on the room floors (our ceiling) hours into the night, where we were up at 5 am to get to our race course. Earplugs didn’t help, as you could feel the vibration. Pounding on the ceiling, even going up to their rooms during the day to beg for reprieve didn’t help. It was just another tiresome distraction we didn’t need.

I was not fast enough to be racing in singles at the Games, but I was part of a good four person kayak and two person crew (K4 and K2 respectively, for the uninitiated), and looking forward to my allotted races. Never mind that damned short paddle I was using, in our K4 races, things went badly for one of our crewmates. His shoulder went out during the sprint. He showed grit in finishing that race, but his shoulder was done. He would have to withdraw from his other race: The 6 km k2 race that he and I were to do together. We’d been a duo together for years, and this was going to be our biggest race together, ever. He was devastated, I was devastated.

An alternate from our team was chosen to pair up with me. The disadvantage, however, was that we were unfamiliar with one another as a fluid crew, having done way less training together. But, we did what we were supposed to do. On race day, we checked the equipment, went over our race plan, did our pre-race prep, and headed out on the water.

It was a windy day. Like, really. windy. All racers were having trouble staying on the start line as whitecaps pounded the boats. We frankly didn’t think we had any chance of medaling at any rate, as there were strong crews from Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Ontario (some kid named Adam van Koeverden was in the Ontario boat). 

So we just went out to do the best we could. The race began. and just like that, misfortune hit once more, inside our boat. The rudder cable snapped. We were barely into a 6000 metre long race, and we had no steering. On a calm day, that wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing, but on a day with gale force winds, it pretty much spelled the end. Or could have. I was in the back of the boat, and didn’t realize what was happening when we first started to go off course, but my crew mate, with the rudder stick in his control, quickly explained the situation. We did a full stop to correct our course and see if we could do some sort of repair. Crews were passing us. we needed to decide if we were going to try to keep going. We decided to push on.

On long distance races, incidental contact between boats can occur, especially on corners as the course involves laps, instead of just the straight lines of the shorter sprints.
Then, just ahead of us, some of that incidental contact. Two of the top crews collided with each other. They dumped each other into the water... and started fighting with one another (remember that van Koeverden guy?).

It was a stroke of luck for us (pun intended). We did some quick math. With those two boats all of a sudden out of the running, the podium was wide open. The silver and bronze, at least. It put the wind back in our sails (pun also intended). We decided then and there, despite my short paddle, the unmatched crew that we were, and the broken steering system, that we were going to go for it. Like, really go for it.

Upwind, we gained ground, each and every stroke. Downwind, we suffered horribly. With the flapping rudder at the mercy of the tailwind, I, in the back of the boat, was forced to stop paddling and use my paddle every once in a while as a rudder, while my partner continued to grind away at pulling us forward. During these stretches, teams were able to pass us again. And so it went with each lap. Teams found their rhythm and it shook out that we seemed to be battling for a bronze with Team Alberta, who we would pass on the headwind, and then they would pass us on the tailwind. Upwind gains and downwind losses. Unfortunately for us, the finish line came on the downwind stretch. Alberta was able to get back ahead of us on the final stretch, and take the bronze medal position with open water between us.

I was crushed. It was the culmination of a week where I felt like everything had gone completely wrong. We returned to the shore, to explain to our waiting families and teammates about everything that happened during that torturous half hour on the water. And then, I just melted into a corner of the team tent and never wanted to come out again. I wrapped myself in a boat cover so that no one could find me and I quietly cried my eyes out. For that race, for everything that had happened that week. In all my sports endeavours, in all my losses, I had never, ever, felt one like that, and to this day, I never have again.

It took me years to see it this way, but I look back on that event, at that 6km race, as one of the best sporting performances I’ve ever given. Over the years, people have come up to me. People from across the country, who were at that event and saw us paddle, and battle, and retreat, and battle again, and lose ground, and gain ground. They use words like ‘gutsy’ and ‘inspiring’ and ‘incredible’ to describe what they saw that day. Some folks weren’t even there, they just heard about it. I didn’t get it then. I could only feel the sting of my own defeat. But I get it now. We had many moments in that race where we could have called it quits. Every time we lost the ground we gained, we could have just said ‘we’re not going to do this, let’s head in’, citing equipment failure. But we didn’t. We just kept going, kept pushing.

I’ve always loved sport, both for the participation and the competition. Competition, to me, doesn’t have to mean winning, but it does mean trying to do your best. If you’re going to show up, show up. I should have seen it sooner, after that day—that week—on Lake Minnedosa. I didn’t just do my best. I did more. In that K2, my partner and I, we pushed like hell with no promise of reward, because that’s what you do in competition. That’s what the Canada Games can be about. Being young athletes, many kids that compete at the Games do so without having ever competed against other provinces before. It’s their first chance (as it was mine), to compete against kids from across Canada.  Work hard for a team spot, have no clue if it’s going to bear reward at the end of the day, but race as hard as you can anyway.  

"Canoe believe it?!" I love a good pun
--at the Canada Games plaza, Brandon Manitoba
The Games, outside of the competition, were an incredible experience. The joy of going to watch other sports, as a team, to cheer on your home province: diving, basketball, wrestling… you name it. We made so much noise in some venues cheering on team BC that we even had coaches come up after matches and games to thank us for giving their corner of Team BC a boost. So much fun.
So, for the kids going to the games this summer, be proud that you worked hard enough to get there. Enjoy the multi-games experience. Take in the ceremonies.Trade all the pins and team gear. Eat all the athlete cafeteria food you can, make some new friends, stick to your game plan, and hope for the best. Know that your victories will be victories for many others, too.

But also realize that maybe, just maybe, (knock on wood) a crushing defeat that you  experience will be someone else's bit of lasting inspiration. Who knows. The Canada Games could be a major stepping stone for you to move up to something far bigger. It wasn’t the case for me, but for folks like that scrappy van Koeverden kid from Ontario…

Win or lose, have a great games, and GO TEAM BC!

Top row L-R: Paul Lovatt, Matthew Mikes, Leif Einarson, Doug Cameron, Stu Chase, Trevor Desjardins, Ashley Rowe
Centre row L-R: Catherine Trask, Kirsten Sudbury, Kate Ballem, Sherry Hunt, Merryn Sturgess. ?
Bottom Row L-R: Chris Taylor, Brian Metzak, Chayne Bradley, Chris Howe, Danny Rink, Aaron Howe
flanking: Aqua and Terra, official Games Mascots :P