At the Olympic Games, there are no guarantees. None. We see Olympic greats like Michael Phelps who owned the 100m butterfly in 2008, not finish in the medals. We see world champions toppled in the heats, and athletes who were not on the radar screen for gold pull out the race of their life. In Beijing, Simon Whitfield looked like he was out of the running with less than 2km to go in the triathlon, when suddenly the visor was flung off and a steely look settled deeply on his face. He found another gear and his silver, almost gold medal performance had me yelling like a mad woman inside an Okanagan hotel bar where I was staying. The Olympics are unpredictable. It helps to be within striking distance going into the games, but after that, all bets are off. When things aren’t going well, as they didn’t with the men’s eight a few days ago, the trick is to not panic. I have rarely had my best race in the opening rounds, and in all three of my Olympic medal performances, I rowed the second rounds, just as the men’s eight did today. I used to joke that I needed the extra practice, but in truth it was incredibly unnerving to put myself behind the eight ball. Several of our athletes find themselves in this position going into their competitions over the next few days. Their jobs will be to put the less stellar race behind, stay focused and take it up a few notches in intensity and performance. I know our Canadian men’s eight and women’s double is capable of a medal performance, but their job will be to put it all out there and qualify for the medal round.
Athletes are usually hyper critical of their own performances and they can turn a good race into a terrible race, in their own heads. My coach, Mike Spracklen, used to tell me that there is only a tiny difference between what it feels like to row a good stroke and row a great one, but what you make it mean is what can win you or lose you the race. If the boat isn’t feeling fantastic, it is easy to dwell on that and anxiety and tension creeps into the boat and takes the edge off. At this level, the edge only has to be off by a tiny amount to take a boat out of the medals. In rowing, it doesn’t have to be perfect to win, but it has to be aggressive, and pushing to the very edge. In order to make it to the finals our rowers will have to ride this edge, and remind themselves that they are the best in the world.