This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 30, 2004
After the heroic row to the finish by the Canadian men's four last Saturday, after the photo finish showed they'd failed, by a mere 8-100ths of a second, to catch Great Britain, Buffy Williams walked as close to the Olympic medal podium as security would permit to witness a silver medal being draped over her husband Barney's head. It was rowing that brought them together, and rowing that often keeps them apart. Her father-in-law, Tom, gave her hand an affectionate squeeze, but mostly she stood alone, peering through a wall of bodies and cameras, applauding, tears streaming down her face. Forgotten for the moment was her own race, barely an hour earlier - a fourth-place finish with pairs partner Darcy Marquardt.
The silver was Canada's second of the Games, and perhaps an appropriate symbol for a first week filled with near misses. But for the crew of the men's four - Cameron Baerg, Jake Wetzel, Tom Herschmiller and Williams - the medal was welcomed with triumph as well as disappointment. They lost, by about the span of a small hand, to a crew headed by renowned British rower Matthew Pinsent. "It's hard to explain," said Baerg, "but it's just an amazing feeling to be in a race like that."
In the last Olympics, it was Buffy, as part of the women's eight, who won bronze, with Barney cheering. Saturday, the women's pair grabbed the early lead only to be overtaken by the winning Romanian pair. Afterward, Marquardt and Williams gave each other a long embrace. "We both said we did our best," Marquardt said, fighting tears, "and that's what we came here to do." Then Williams sought a quiet place to watch her husband's race. They've been apart much of the spring and summer, Barney training in Victoria, Buffy in London, Ont. "I'm so proud of him, he raced his heart out," she said as the last strains of the British national anthem faded away. "They were racing against legends."
The silver ended a Canadian run of bad rowing luck. The women's eight and lightweight double rowers Fiona Milne of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Mara Jones of Aurora, Ont., failed to reach the medal round. The pair of David Calder of Victoria, and Chris Jarvis of St. Catharines, Ont., were disqualified Wednesday from the medal race after straying into a neighbouring lane in the closing metres of a preliminary race. A draining series of appeals went nowhere. "This is my last Olympics," a disappointed Calder said after the last appeal failed. "I've got a young family - it's time to take care of them." But Canada had two more chances to reinstate its reputation as a rowing power, under heavyweight coach Mike Spracklen and head coach Brian Richardson, who were hired to turn around a wallowing men's program after it was shut out in Sydney. Richardson's crew, the lightweight men's four, was to race Sunday, along with a crew in rowing's showcase event, the men's eight, coached by Spracklan.
The eight share Spracklen's commitment to victory at almost any cost. He called a crew meeting after they came second in a preliminary race here, their first loss in two years at a major international event. It was a wrenching experience. One by one, each member stood up and spoke of the sacrifices made to get this far: failed relationships, young children with absentee fathers, missed opportunities, injuries, economic hardship. It was nothing they didn't know, nothing that isn't experienced by all members of the rowing team and by most of Canada's athletes in Athens. Still, it brought a tight crew even closer. "Guys don't sit around and talk about that stuff too often, but when you do, it makes a big impact," said coxswain Brian Price, a survivor of childhood leukemia.
When it was his turn to speak, Spracklen, who has coached crews to more than 30 world-level medals, told his crew a gold medal is forever. Stellar performances can happen anywhere, he said. But heroes are made at the Olympics.
See also Rowing.
Maclean's August 30, 2004