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Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Olympic momentum building

 The electronic sign, visible from Wayne Gretzky's Toronto restaurant, was a graphic reminder for the Olympic rowers when they spotted it.

 It featured Olympic sprinter Bruny Surin and was counting down the weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds until his race in Sydney.

 "We looked at and said 'Wow, it's coming up fast,' " singles rower Marnie McBean said last night at what was one of the few relaxed moments the Olympians will have before heading for Australia. The final for McBean's event is same day as Surin's, Sept. 23.

 This was at a barbeque for Olympic-bound athletes, coaches and medical staff at the north London home of Richard McLaren and Shelagh Martin. McLaren, a law professor at UWO, will be in Australia as part of a 12-member panel ruling on disputes during the Games.

 Once again the hopeful eyes of Canadians will look toward the rowers to lead the parade to the medal podium. The 38 kilometres the women's eights and the 15 kilometres of sprints McBean put in yesterday on Fanshawe Lake are merely more tiny steps toward it.

 A big one might have been made at the World Cup in Switzerland nine days ago.

 "It was refreshing in a way," Alison Korn said of coach Al Morrow's revamping the women's eights order, moving bow pair Buffy Alexander and Laryssa Biesenthal to stern of the 1996 Olympic silver medal crew. "Sometimes it shakes things up and brings a certain chemistry."

 After a fourth-place finish at Vienna earlier, the new order powered to a silver at the World Cup with what Korn called an "aggressive but relaxed" approach that replaced some hints of panic and impatience in the earlier race in Austria.

 The most fascinating individual rower on the team is, of course, McBean, whose force of personality and performance goes a long way toward evening out any negatives involved in her third Olympic appearance. Formerly half of the killer pairs with Kathleen Heddle, she's going solo once more at Sydney.

 You sense a trace of doubt in the triple Olympic gold medal winner (pairs, double sculls, eights), but dismiss it. McBean didn't just roll off the competitive turnip truck.

 She admits to physical setbacks of last year working negatively on mental strengths, of "asking for more gears and not getting them.

 "When I knocked on the door, I was wondering if anyone was there," she said colourfully.

 But rolfing, or the part of that deep massage process that works on the muscle sheath, has combined with her own self-discipline on water and in the weight room to produce somebody capable winning a medal. A gold medal seems unlikely. A medal, though, is not unreasonable.

 "There's a big difference difference between wants and needs," she said by way of explaining how she goes beyond what any coach might demand.

 "It's like a diet. Every now and then your body says it needs chocolate cake. No it doesn't. Same when I've done three of four routines and tell myself I need to pull up to the dock. No I don't."

 The lightweight fours, which won a silver medal in Atlanta, was fourth at the World Cup as four boats came in within the same second. Coach Volker Nolte is confident the right race can produce a medal for stroke Jon Beare, Gavin Hassett, Chris Davidson and Iain Brambell.

 A couple of things were certain as the Olympic mob munched burgers in the ambience of a leafy back garden. Host McLaren won't hear any disputes involving Canadian athletes due to conflict of interest. And all present hoped nobody would have to see another guest, physician Connie Lebrun of the medical team.

 And that Olympic clock is ticking down.