Marnie Elizabeth McBean, OC, rower, mentor, motivational speaker, Olympic Chef de Mission (born 28 January 1968 in Vancouver, BC). Winners of four Olympic medals, Marnie McBean and her rowing partner Kathleen Heddle are the only Canadian athletes to win three gold medals at the Olympic Summer Games. McBean also won eight medals at the World Championships. She is a member of the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and has received the Thomas Keller Medal, the most prestigious award in rowing. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada and served as Canada’s Chef de Mission at the 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo.
Marnie McBean won her first trophy at age eight playing chess. A competitive person by nature, she played almost every sport in high school. While attending Etobicoke Collegiate Institute in Toronto, McBean participated in basketball, soccer, volleyball, cross-country running and track and field. “But while I could make all the school teams,” McBean has said, “I really wasn’t great at any of them.”
After high school, McBean attended the University of Western Ontario (now Western University) in London, Ontario, where she joined the school’s rowing team. She graduated with a degree in kinesiology in 1997.
Early Rowing Career 1986–90
When McBean was 16 years old, she watched the closing ceremonies for the 1984 Olympic Summer Games and felt, as she later said, that she “wanted to go to a party like that!”
McBean’s rowing career started after seeing the sport in the movie Oxford Blues. A TV commercial for Coffee Crisp chocolate bars also left her with a lot of questions about rowing. “I asked my mom, ‘How do you learn to row?’ She had no idea — she could only suggest a place for me to search for info. My Olympic journey started because I looked up the Argonaut Rowing Club in the phone book!”
In 1986, McBean joined the learn-to-row program at the Argonaut Rowing Club in Toronto. (See also Toronto Argonauts.) She was soon asked if she wanted to become a recreational or competitive member of the club. “I couldn’t imagine the former and thrived as the latter,” she said.
A friend at the rowing club asked if she was going to try out for the national junior team but McBean didn’t know what that was. Her friend said she would need an ergometer score to try out. (An ergometer, commonly called an erg, is a rowing machine that measures information about one’s performance, including speed, power output, distance, and stroke rate.) McBean found a place to take the test and recorded scores that were consistent with those of the senior national women’s team. But even though she made the team, McBean’s unrefined technique left a lot to be desired. “At the end of the year the coach told me, ‘I have never seen someone go so fast and be so bad,’” McBean said.
McBean began rowing in 1986 — the same year she debuted with the national junior team. She and Julie Jespersen Platt won a bronze medal in coxless pairs at the World Rowing Junior Championships in Račice, Czech Republic. McBean tried out for the national team in 1988 but didn’t make the cut. The team’s coach, Al Morrow, told her, “The national team is not the place to learn how to row, it’s the place to learn how to win.”
McBean made the Canadian national team in 1989. She was paired with Kathleen Heddle, with whom she would enjoy the most success. At the World Championships in 1989 and 1990, McBean and the Canadian women’s coxless four finished in fourth place.
Rowing Career Highlights, 1991–2000
In 1991, McBean and Heddle won gold medals in coxless pairs and eights at the World Championships in Vienna, Austria. The pair then won gold in the same events at the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona. Canada won four gold medals in rowing at Barcelona, more than at any other Olympics.
At the 1993 World Championships in Račice, Czech Republic, McBean decided to compete in an individual event and won a silver medal in the single sculls. (In scull events, a rower uses two oars; in sweep events, they use one.)
McBean returned to team rowing with Heddle the next year, earning a silver in double sculls at the 1994 World Championships. At the 1995 World Championships, the duo again won gold in the double sculls, as well as silver in the quadruple sculls. McBean and Heddle went on to win another gold medal in double sculls and a bronze in quadruple sculls at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta. McBean and Heddle were selected as Canada’s flagbearers for the closing ceremonies.
McBean stepped away from rowing in 1997. When she returned at the World Championships the following year, she was part of the teams that won silver in the coxless four and bronze in the eight. She retired from rowing in 2000 due to a persistent back injury. (See also McBean's Back Injury.)
McBean came out publicly as gay in 2014 and married her partner of four years, Deanah Shelly, in April that year. They have a daughter named Isabel.
Following her athletic career, McBean became a professional speaker and mentor to Olympic athletes. She worked with athletes as a specialist in Olympic athlete preparation and mentoring until 2014. She also served as the Canadian Olympic Team’s Chef de Mission at the 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo.
McBean is in the 2000 Guinness Book of World Records as the first woman to achieve a World Rowing Federation gold or silver medal in all sweep events (pair, four and eight) and all sculling events (single, double, quad). She failed to reach the podium at a World Championships or an Olympic Games only once, winning eight medals at the former and four at the latter. McBean and her rowing partner, Kathleen Heddle, are the only Canadian athletes to win three gold medals at the Olympic Summer Games.
McBean was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1994 and into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2002, the World Rowing Federation awarded her the prestigious Thomas Keller Award in recognition of her outstanding international career. She has received honorary degrees from Western University (2003) and the University of Calgary (2021). She received the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal in 1995 and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2013.