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Sunday, September 24, 2000

Rowers shed a tear before race

 PENRITH LAKES -- Usually the tears come after they've stood on the podium.

 The Canadian women's eight did shed a tear or two after they won a rowing bronze Sunday. But it's amazing, after crying the way they did before the race and then sweating for the six gruelling minutes it takes to cover the 2000 metres to Olympic glory, that the women had anything left to squeeze out.

 An emotional speech by women's head coach Al Morrow before the eight rowers and coxswain Lesley Thompson climbed into their boat for their warmup left them red-eyed.

 As the team huddled for one last talk in their tent, Morrow started with Thompson, from London, Ont., thanking her for being with him since 1980 and "being more supportive of me than any woman but my wife."

 That got everybody sniffling.

 But that wasn't new. The nine women, knowing this would be the last race for some of them, were feeling particularly emotional for most of the week.

 "We had three meetings in a row where everybody was crying. Except me. I'm a guy," Morrow joked. "I cried inside."

 He worked his way around the room with a personal message for each member of the crew.

 From Thompson he went to stroke Buffy Alexander of St. Catharines, Ont. Small by rowing standards at just 5-foot-8, Morrow called her "a little tiger."

 Laryssa Biesenthal of Walkerton, Ont., was the tiger's twin sister. Alison Korn, the one who cried the most, was the pillar of the team, said Morrow, and the women laughed that the pillar was the one crying more than any of them.

 Emma Robinson of Winnipeg, who won a battle with thyroid cancer, was "our hero, our quiet leader," and Theresa Luke of 100 Mile House, B.C., would pass on the rhythm of the boat. Dorota Urbaniak of Toronto would never give up and Heather Davis of Vancouver would row like she had never rowed before.

 Morrow said he hoped Heather McDermid, in the bow, would be the first of the 54 women on the water to cross the finish line.

 "We cried, but there was laughter, too," said Korn. "Then we put our sunglasses on and went to the bathroom."

 Korn said she thought the emotions were bubbling so close to the surface in part because of the way they prepared for the race.

 Morrow limited them to just light rowing in the three days before the competition and told them to conserve all their energy.

 That took away a big outlet for the women and the energy and the emotion started to build.

 "We had no hard strokes for three days, so we were really brimming," said Korn. "Anything would set you off. We were so ready. We were just on the edge."

 Morrow said he stole the idea of going around the room the way he did from Jack Donohue, the Canadian basketball coaching legend, after seeing a video of Donohue in action before Canada won the World University Games in the early '90s.

 "He went around the room and shook every guy's hand and he knew all the nicknames," said Morrow.

 Morrow's inspirational talk opened up a valve that might have released some pressure. This was a disappointing regatta for the Canadian rowers to say the least. Since Barcelona in 1992, where they won five of Canada's 18 medals, through Atlanta four years ago where they accounted for six of 22, the rowers and scullers have led the charge to the podium for Canada.

 But this time around they were shut out until Sunday.

 "This was a tough week for Canadian rowers," said Morrow, "and I think they felt a lot of pressure." But they delivered.

 They got off to a decent start and by the halfway point of the race had pulled into third place behind the Romanians and the Dutch. That's pretty much the way it played out from there.

 "We were just focusing on what Lesley was saying," said Biesenthal. "We kept our heads down and kept digging."

 "We raced like a machine. I had the feeling the boat was flying," said Robinson. "The legs were pounding down like pistons.

 "This group will never be together again and we achieved something we couldn't do on our own."

 Pass the tissues.