Brunet tabbed as golden girl of Canada's team
By STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun
For 13 years, Caroline Brunet has been up the creek with a paddle, so much of that time on her own, pursuing a sport that captures almost no one's attention.
There has been little recognition until now and the truth is, she hasn't wanted much.
There has been only occasional notoriety, the kind that comes with a daily headline and disappears the next day.
You don't hear about her pain or her struggles. That only becomes part of the story now. There is tendinitis in her shoulder, arthritis in her neck, a left leg longer than the right, and a body that has been twisted and turned by a kayaking world most of us couldn't begin to comprehend.
"My body,'' she said, "is basically falling apart, but I can paddle. So I'm fine.''
So fine is Caroline Brunet that she is expected to be the Canadian star of the Sydney Olympics. It is something she desperately wants -- not being the star, just dominating her sport -- and yet, the athletic contradiction that has always been Brunet will be on display for everyone to see in Sydney. She wants medals, not attention. She wants to be that overnight sensation that took four Olympic Games to finally be the athlete every Canadian knows.
"I have a passion inside of me for all of this and it's still a challenge,'' said Brunet, who is a legitimate gold medal threat in two kayak events. "It's not like I'm choosing to do this. I need to do this to feel in balance with myself.''
An athlete forever testing herself, pushing not against others but against her own lofty goals. That is among the reasons that Brunet, 31, was chosen to be the flag-bearer for the Canadian team at the opening ceremony in Sydney. Other athletes may be better known. Others may have more profile.
But there is something about her toughness, about her grit, about the way she comes back every season just a little bit better, that makes her so representative of a Canadian athlete: If she were a hockey player, she would be everyone's favourite.
Talented yet humble. Accomplished but not searching for recognition. Brunet has not lost a 500-metre K1 race in more than two years and she has been the world champion since 1997. And she will pair with young Karen Furneaux of Waverley, N.S., in the K2 500-metre race again as the favourites.
"A big, big, success would be two gold medals,'' Brunet told the Montreal Gazette. "That would be my definition of success. And this is achievable.''
The Olympic progression of Brunet has been fascinating to observe, from junior world champion to Olympic favourite. In two events in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, she made the semi-finals in each but was out of her league and didn't quality for the final races. At Barcelona, four years later, she finished sixth in K4 and seventh in K1, performances that almost crushed her emotionally. In Atlanta, she came within a ripple of gold, placing second in her speciality event, the 500-metre race, by one-fifth of a second.
"In Atlanta, I was dead when I finished the race. I started my finish way too early, that's why I died. But I've learned. Now I have the confidence and the experience. Even if the other girls are passing me, I have the ability to catch them. I know that.''
Everyone in the sport knows that. That makes her a target. It also means for the first time in her athletic life, she will not only be dealing with her own high expectations, but those of Canadians who will just come to know her by the time the Games begin. She will be carrying the flag, featured on television, suddenly paddling will become -- for an Olympic moment, anyhow -- an important Canadian sport.
Those are never easy strokes for any athlete, especially one who has kept herself so insulated. But Brunet began the process in Atlanta, and flag or not, she will continue it in Sydney.
At the '96 Olympics, she so cut herself off from the rest of the world she stopped talking to her mother for two weeks prior to her event. It was no slight. It was just her way of getting ready.
If she could justify not talking to her mother, she figured, she could justify not talking to anybody.
"I just wanted to be prepared to my maximum," Brunet said. "In a sport like mine, which gets attention only in Olympic years, if you're not used to it, it can be a distraction.
"When you have trained for more than 10 years and everything comes down to one race of 1:50, there's a lot of accumulated stress.''
A stress she has travelled the world trying to avoid. Born in Lac-Beauport, Que., she lives in the Laurentians, trains in Norway, sometimes in Florida, but moved to Australia in late July to properly prepare herself for the Olympics. Her schedule, without the mystery, seems similar to another Quebec legend, biathlete Myriam Bedard, who travelled on her own, had herself privately coached and had an innate ability to be at her best when it mattered most, sometimes shunning the Canadian sport bureaucrats along the way.
The strange thing about her selection to carry the flag at the opening ceremony is, she didn't even take part in the ceremony in Atlanta or Barcelona.
She thought the exercise would be distracting. Now she conforms and for this Olympics, probably her last, she will be the leader they want her to be.
On her terms -- always on her terms.