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Wednesday, August 30, 2000

Marnie Factor could only go so far

 Marnie McBean's dream came quickly and incisively to an end at the doctor's office in a coastal cowtown in northern Australia.

 "The doctor asked me if I wanted the bad news or the really bad news first and I said 'Give me the really bad news,' " Canada's most decorated Olympian said in a telephone conversation from Australia last night.

 "He said 'Your Olympic run is over.' It was hard to hear but it was best that way, to get it right away."

 The bad news was bad enough. The lower back pain and hamstring spasms she'd been experiencing were not part of the aging process as she had thought.

 Magnetic resonance imaging showed a large disc protrusion displacing nerve roots. If the end of a distinguished career can be captured in a picture, that was it.

 McBean had couched her physical woes in typical fashion over a burger in a leafy London garden several weeks back and you could see the Marnie Factor at work.

 It is something observers have seen since she began winning her astounding array of 12 Olympic and world rowing championships: Whatever the setback is, whatever the problem, the indescribable Marnie Factor would surge forth and once again she would be standing on the podium.

 So when it ended it was with a particularly loud bang. A thunderclap, really. When the excruciating pain in McBean's lower back expelled Canada's Olympic singles hopeful, you know it had to be pretty diabolical.

 She said during that backyard barbecue that she'd been having some physical woes but dismissed them as normal for a 32-year-old rower.

 She underwent rolfing, massaging the muscle sheath. She willed herself to stay in the weight room longer, on the water longer. She hardened herself mentally for what would be her third and final Olympics.

 And when it all unravelled at the Rockhampton training camp 1,500 kilometres north of Sydney, she was devastated.

 "I'd seen athletes older than me and I thought it was just the aches and pains associated with being a rower, that I was just being a wimp about it," she said, her voice catching slightly. "The MRI made it really clear. I have no doubts about my decision. Ironically, my goal since last year was to do everything I could possibly do so there'd be no doubts."

 It is not as though she was a threat for a gold medal. She'd struggled through the world championships last year (sixth) and World Cup performances in Europe were highlighted by her withdrawal from one event and her placing 10th overall at Lucerne, Switzerland.

 But that Marnie Factor could not be discounted. She'd been in the medals often enough, after all, including a rowing record three golds.

 She got the results a week ago and only her roommate, eights cox Lesley Thompson, was aware. They cried together. Then men's singles rower Derek Porter, a chiropractor, saw the MRI photo and knew. McBean couldn't go long standing to eat and not training, so she announced it to the rest of the team Monday, apologizing for being a distraction.

 "I asked them if they'd mind if I stuck with the team," McBean said softly. "They all gave me hugs with an 'I don't know what to say' look in their eyes and that they wanted me with them in Sydney. I can help but I want to keep out of everyone's way. The focus is on them. I'll be watching. It'll be tough."

 The dream is gone, replaced by daily painkillers and working out at a rowing no-no, hand-softening 50-lap swimming, tapering down from a year's work.

 What's next?

 Consulting with London doctors. Acting as honourary chairperson for the 2001 Canada Games here. Rowing, maybe.

 "I love rowing. I never expected to row at the next Olympics. but I want to row and compete. I don't know . . . "