Last night dozens of athletes were reaching out to Mike Spracklen as they heard the startling news of his very public firing from his position of men’s coach at Rowing Canada. Mike Spracklen is a legend in our sport, and to the athletes he led over several decades in this country, he played a pivotal, positive role in their lives. To so many of the athletes Mike coached, the firing is deeply personal. Kevin Light, 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist in the men’s eight, sat on Mike’s coach boat for half an hour and cried; I walked through the super market in a daze as I heard the news, and began to cry when my daughter asked what was wrong; Rob Marland winner of Olympic Gold in 1992 wrote to share his sorrow and indignation with the recent decision. I feel completely flattened by the news, and less hopeful than ever that rowing in this country can build a program that respects athletes and their dreams. The top male rowers in this country made it crystal clear they wanted Mike to continue to lead them; straight off their Olympic Medal performance, their letters, their phone calls, their wishes, fell on deaf ears. Rowing Canada has charged ahead with its plans to get rid of Mike, to move parts of our program out of Victoria to London, and to hire back coaches who have never performed. It doesn’t sound like a winning plan, but sadly the losers are not the people who make the decisions, they are the athletes and the coaches.
Double gold medalist, Kyle Hamilton, who well could have made a great new leader in Rowing Canada, resigned in protest tonight. “I do not want to be part of a board that supports this kind of decision” he stated. If I hadn’t been an athlete myself, I would have asked the athletes to resign in protest until Mike was re-instated; this might finally grab the attention of Sport Canada and Own the Podium. The repercussions of this kind of action in a system that seems focused on controlling the athletes would be far reaching and long term.
Peter Cookson has talked about the two medals from London being unacceptable and immediately fired the man who helped win 50% of our medal count. Hmmm. While he and others are pointing fingers, would it not make sense to look at the system itself? A system that has more managers and directors than coaches, a system that doesn’t back the very coaches it does hire, and a system that is heavy handed with the athletes when they stand up for what they believe to be right. This system is consuming valuable money and resources that could and should be directed to the coaches and their athletes.
A great system is a lean one which hires great coaches and get’s out of their way. In this kind of system both athletes and coaches are accountable because they actually get to do their jobs. In this kind of system there are no whiners because everybody is too busy rowing, doing their jobs and winning.
Athletes and fans of the sport are in shock as the significance of the news set in; Mike Spracklen, the greatest coach in the history of the sport of rowing, has been let go by the country he won Olympic Gold, Silver and Bronze medals with.
It's not that we didn’t see it coming. The seeds of discontent within the system had been planted years ago and were beginning to grow. Mike always fought for his athletes, and he didn’t suffer a fool, so over the years he made some enemies. Like all great leaders, he wasn’t easy to manage, and if a decision was made by the administration that hurt the athletes, he would fight them for what he believed was right. Apparently, he was usually right and it is hard to argue with his track record. At the London Games he took a group of young men, only two of them who had won before and turned them into a solid shot for a gold medal; they won silver. Jeremiah Brown hadn’t even picked up an oar three years before. Mike knew how to take a group of talented athletes and turn them into a focused winning team. I for one am very proud to have been coached by this legendary and caring man. I am utterly disappointed for the younger athletes that will not have that opportunity.