July 26, 1996

Hallett's real victory

GAINESVILLE, Ga. --  Todd Hallett looks every inch the Canadian rower, and, oh my and hide your daughters, that is saying a piece.
  He is tall, clean-limbed, skin browned and warmed by the sun. He is young. He is gorgeous. He is smart. He has the oddly grave, even gaze so many rowers have; it must come in equal parts from hours spent on open water, from the freedom given the mind when the body is folded into a small space and assigned a demanding and repetitive task, from the self-knowledge bred by hard physical work.
  Yesterday, on a dreamy, hazy sort of morning at Lake Lanier, the man-made lake that gives Atlanta most of her drinking water, before a packed house that included his mom and dad, this beautiful young man from Dartmouth, N.S., made the wrenching discovery that perhaps he may not belong on this team.
  Hallett and Mike Forgeron, another Maritimer and his partner in the double sculls, were the only Canadians racing yesterday who didn't move onto the finals.
  Emma Robinson and Anna van der Kamp, the fresh-faced lions of the group, made it through in the coxless pairs. Marni McBean and Kathleen Heddle, who play beautifully off one another - even in conversation - and are absolutely frightening in their boat, levelled their competition in the double sculls semi-final. Silken Laumann, revealing her doubters as nervous Nellies, led for most of her single sculls race, finished an easy second, and will compete on Super Saturday. Derek Porter, a beast in the boat, demolished his field until, near the end, he remembered that "the point of the semi-final is to get into the final," decided not to kick it into high gear, and coasted, and he might as well have been yawning, to a second-place finish.
  Hallett and Forgeron, off to a slow start they didn't understand and were unable to explain, could never make up their lost ground, and despite a courageous late push that moved them from sixth to fourth, failed to qualify for the final.
  The loss was awful for them both.
  If Forgeron was collected afterwards, his young wife showed how much it hurts to work so hard, so long, for something, and to fall short; she walked about the grounds after the race, bent over at the waist, so upset she was almost physically sick, weeping violently.
  But Forgeron is an Olympic champion already; he was a member of the men's eights who won gold in Barcelona. In this tough crowd of superb Canadian rowers, among whom excellence is not some standard they occasionally reach for but rather a way of life, he likely has some sense of belonging.
  Hallett does not.
  In 1992, his first Olympics, he finished seventh; at the last world championships, he said with a scornful snort, he was eighth, just missing the semi-final. Yesterday, he was fourth. He believed he and Forgeron could medal in Atlanta, and he was absolutely inconsolable yesterday.
  "They all hurt too much," he said softly. "They all still hurt."
  Beside him, Forgeron, concerned, reacted instantly.
  "You dust yourself off, right," he said, ostensibly to reporters, but in truth, I think, his remarks were directed at his partner. "You take another swing. Sometimes, you hit a home run, sometimes you strike out.
  "You know," said Forgeron, "we got a lot of telegrams from people all across the country, from both coasts, wishing us well, and we want to thank those people. I would like them to know that sometimes, when you reach high, you don't miss."
  But Hallett refused to find comfort in those words, or any others. He was like an open wound - raw, vulnerable, bleeding. It was agony even to sit beside him, and finally, unable to bear it anymore, someone tried to remind him that he ought to draw pride from the effort alone, from the striving, the reaching, the magnificent push.
  "This time I won't," he said with a derisive bark of a laugh, absolutely ruthless on himself. "When I came seventh last time (in Barcelona), I could think that. This time, it won't be good enough."
  Rowers, the elite and those who never made it that far, all say the same thing about their sport, that it is honest, that because of its immense physical demands on the body, because, as one of them put it yesterday, "it hurts so much," it keeps the athlete honest.
  Yesterday, a 26-year-old learned something about himself - that he had not, again, measured up - and he was unflinching. He did not look away from the truth. I cannot imagine the courage that took. Todd Hallett did not make the final, and he will not win a medal in Atlanta, but he is surely a rower, brave and true, and in the long days of self-examination that will surely follow, perhaps he will come to understand that where he may have failed on the lake, he exulted on land.