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Monday, September 25, 2000

Out of their shells

We're too quick to point fingers at rowers

  SYDNEY -- As Canadian sculler Derek Porter turned away from what might have been his last interview as an Olympian, he blinked back tears and said to the reporters: "Sorry, guys."

 Porter, the former world champ, had finished fourth in his event, another Canadian rowing hopeful whose medal hopes went to the bottom of Penrith Lake.

 The Olympic regatta turned out to be a disaster for Canada's rowers and scullers, given expectations. Nine shells went into the water. Only one came out with a medal, a bronze by the women's eight. Porter apologized, but he needn't have. Every Canadian who dipped a scull or an oar into the water gave it the best they had. Unfortunately, except for one race, that wasn't enough to make it to the podium.

 Kathleen Heddle, a four-time Olympic medallist, said people shouldn't panic.

 "Honestly, I know a few people are going to see one medal compared to six and optically, yes, it looks like Canadian rowing is in a downfall," she said. "But so many little things happen in a regatta that can skew the results. Just a fraction can make the difference in being in a final. That's hard for the general population to understand.

 "I don't want people to think Canadian rowing is going down the tubes. This is one of the strongest teams we ever had. We just didn't click the way we needed to to get medals."

 CRITICISM HURTS

 Emma Robinson of Winnipeg, who fought back from cancer and put her life on hold to help the women's eight win that bronze, said criticism back in Canada hurts.

 "I gave up two years of my life for seven minutes," she said. "I gave up school, I moved back and forth across the country. I was away from my boyfriend and family. We tried our best. We didn't come here to lose."

 Anybody who knows even just a little bit about these athletes knows that. But what does Canadian rowing do to make sure these athletes' best is good enough to get them to the podium?

 Where does Canadian rowing go from here? The evaluation process will begin soon and already there are rumblings Canada will have a much different approach. Given the fixed resources, the logical route to go is to pull back and cut the number of crews. Identify the athletes who have the best chance of winning medals and pour what resources the national team has into those boats.

 Canada sent 38 rowers and scullers to these Games. Of the nine boats in the water, only three made it to their "A" finals.

 "We have to be really effective with the resources we have," said women's coach Al Morrow. "We've got to get high-performance coaches and identify and motivate the right athletes. We need to run a lean and mean program and build on three or four boats and build our program off that."

 More money wouldn't hurt, either, but Morrow contends there is enough program money to make Canadian boats winners if the money is concentrated in fewer shells.

 "You definitely have to be very careful how you spread your resources. If you spread them too wide, you're going to dilute your team. You wind up with a whole lot of fifths instead of gold," said Brian Richardson, the former Canadian coach who helped Australian to five medals in the regatta.

 "You know that between one Olympics and the next, the standard is going to improve by 1%. That's what's been happening over the last 10 Olympics. We know that from a statistical point of view, so you do your planning accordingly. You look at your weaknesses and know that everyone else is going to get faster. Twelve months from now, everybody is going to be faster."

 Canadian rowing needs to push the envelope. That means keeping the coaching standard high and spending money to get and keep good coaches.

 "Canada's in a rebuilding stage," said Richardson. "They're going to have to rethink and re-evaluate their program. Everyone goes through that."

 Now it's Canada's turn.