August 3, 1996
Canada's future comes into focus
By KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun
LAKE LANIER, Ga. -- The golden swagger of the Canadian rowing team is gone from Lake Lanier, replaced by modest hopes and dreams of their blue-collar cousins.
The waterfront press room, overflowing with reporters last week, scratching for every little detail about Canada's Team, is a blissful sanctuary of peace and quiet this week.
You won't find any of our national team paddlers starring in commercials on prime time TV.
But you may just find a few of them on the Olympic medals podium this weekend.
Six Canadian boats have qualified for finals, three this morning and three more tomorrow. And while there are medal expectations all around, the reality is if we leave the water tomorrow at noon with two medals, it will be a successful regatta.
"For all those chickens to come home to roost is asking a little bit too much," said team leader Rob Sleeth.
One of those medal hopes is 24-year-old Steve Giles, who will team up with Dan Howe this morning in the two-man 1,000-metre canoe final, then race on his own in the C-1 500 metres tomorrow.
Giles qualified for that race yesterday morning, winning his heat and beating the three-time defending world champion, Nikolai Bukhalov of Bulgaria, in the process.
"I have a chance but I'm not going to guarantee a medal," said Giles. "I expect to be positioned in the top five and then anything can happen in the last 50-75 metres."
Giles is one of several Canadian paddlers just coming into the prime of his career. He's not yet a household name but in the next few years he very well might be. He says competition, not recognition, is what drives him.
"When I first started in this, I wasn't looking for fame and fortune," he said. "It was just something I did in the summer. Then I got good at it.
"To me this is just like every other meet. I live for the nervousness, for the tension."
This has been something of a breakthrough year for Giles. Sometime in the past 12 months -- and he's not sure precisely when -- a light went on.
"I feel like I'm just learning to paddle," he said.
"In the past, I always knew if I raced my best I could do well. But I never knew if I was going to race my best. It was left up to chance.
"In the past year, I've learned how to prepare. It's just experience and maturity. It takes a long time to learn how to paddle."
"I can remember racing in 1992. I was just a basket case, hoping to bang away. This time I'm more relaxed, more confident. I know I'm going to paddle well and that's such a reassuring feeling."
It seems such a simple thing. A canoe, a paddle and a set of barbells. Everybody can do it, right? Hardly. Strength is certainly an asset, but muscle alone won't draw you through the water at Olympic speed.
"All these people out there are artists," said Sleeth. "A lot of people pull the water hard but can't move the boat. You have to be able to float like a butterfly. It's like any other sport: some people have an intuitive ability. I've noticed the people who come to paddling from swimming seem to have an affinity.
"If you're a hacker, you have to be bloody strong for your body weight."
Probably Canada's best hope for a medal is Caroline Brunet, who coasted home second in her K-1 500 semi-final yesterday.
"I think Caroline looks like the strongest athlete we have here," said Sleeth. "She's going to be in the hunt."
Canada isn't exactly a nobody in the paddling world, but we're sort of between engagements right now. Larry Cain was a star for many years on the international stage but he retired. Renn Crichlow's international career will come to an end after today's four-man kayak final. He was bounced unceremoniously from yesterday morning's K-1 semi-final.
Most of the rest of the team is young, at least in an international sense.
Brunet is 27 and Giles is 24, but many of the others are in their early 20s and looking toward the 2000 Olympics ... and even beyond.
So, this weekend may not be Canada's finest hour on the paddling course.
But it could be a perfect springboard into the next generation.