This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 11, 2000
McBean's Back Injury
For months, there had been signs that the McBean Machine was not running at full capacity. In early June, Canada's 32-year-old Olympic rower Marnie McBean felt a "little twinge" in her lower back, a recurrence of a problem that had plagued her in 1999. Throughout the summer, she put in lacklustre performances at European regattas, where she rowed the single sculls. Then two weeks ago, after a cramped 22-hour flight from Toronto to Sydney, Australia - home of the upcoming Olympics - her body seized up when she went for a row. McBean had known injury before; top athletes are conditioned to deal with discomfort. Besides, she was just weeks away from the final goal of her illustrious career - rowing in her third consecutive Olympics. But the "little twinge" turned out to be two herniated spinal discs, and last week a tearful McBean announced she was pulling out of the Games. "I feel I've dealt with it surprisingly well," McBean told Maclean's from the Canadian rowing team's training camp near Rockhampton, Australia. "But it may be because the training camp is in a remote place. Once we get to Sydney with the banners and the colours, I think it will start to sink in."
For more than a decade, McBean, with her wild shock of curly hair and forthright talk, has been one of Canada's most recognized and admired amateur athletes. A member of the national team since 1989, she spent the first part of her international career rowing in eights and pairs with her teammate Kathleen Heddle. To some degree, she languished in the shadow of single-sculler Silken Laumann. But McBean has won 12 Olympic and world championship medals, more than any other Canadian (Laumann took eight). Her most memorable haul was two golds in the pairs and eights at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Even those numbers, however, fail to do justice to her athletic versatility: McBean is the only female rower in history to win international medals in all four boat classes. "Marnie," said Uwe Bender, the veteran Australian rowing coach, "is Canadian rowing."
But for Canadian athletes, she's so much more. Her can-do attitude has been as commanding off the pond as on it. In 1995, she started FORS - the Fund for Olympic Rowers Survival - to raise corporate money for her struggling, unheralded teammates who couldn't attract sponsorships. Remarkably, McBean's altruistic plan, which has raised more than $150,000, was almost scotched by the Canadian Olympic Association, which claimed it owned the copyright of the word Olympic. The COA backed down when McBean simply refused to change the name. She's put her oar in on other controversies as well. At the 1999 Pan-Am Games in Winnipeg, she chastised Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey when he took a $200,000 spokesman's fee from the Games' organizers and then did not attempt to qualify to run the 100-m.
For a woman so used to talking on any subject, she had to choke out the news that she was dropping out of the Games. She wanted to put the announcement off until she got to the Olympic Village in Sydney, but her injury kept her from training and she knew it wouldn't be long before word leaked out. Former Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury commiserated with McBean's tough decision, but says she made the right move. "She has the wisdom to know that the body doesn't repair itself sometimes," said Tewksbury, a gold medallist in 1992. "Having been so decorated as an Olympian, she knows that she doesn't need to add anything more to it, and it would have been foolish to carry on."
McBean hopes to march into the Olympic stadium and stay at the athletes' village, but may be prevented from doing so under Olympic rules; officially, she's no longer on the team. And she worries: "No matter how included I am, I'll still feel like an outsider." As for her future, she says: "I want to race again. I just want to enjoy my sport again." A late-career comeback? For McBean, the consummate competitor, anything seems possible.
Maclean's September 11, 2000