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COLUMNISTS

Sun, June 27, 2004

Richardson rebuilds rapidly


To turn around the once proud Canadian men's rowing program, Brian Richardson figured he might have to make some waves. A team that had grown accustomed to success had become a mess by 2001 and the hiring of the personable Aussie as the team's head coach was the first step to recovery.

The mandate was to return the team to a world power by building from the ground up, even if it took some time.

"When I was hired, I was asked what I expected of our team in Athens," Richardson said this past week. "I said if we can win a medal, that would be a very good feat but 2008 is what we are really looking at.

"Now we're now going into 2004 with the possibility of five or six medals, which is just phenomenal. It shows how quickly things can move when you get the groundswell going."

The 2000 Summer Games in Sydney will officially go down as a disaster best forgotten for a team that had grown used to Olympic success. Once a leader among Canada's medal hopes, the rowers came up from down under with just one, a bronze in the women's eight.

It was quite a tumble from 1996 in Atlanta when Canadian crews collected six medals and the boom of Barcelona in 1992 when they won eight.

So Richardson, who had led the Canadian team during the 1996 Games and was a coach for the team from his native Australia in 2000, made his initial move count.

When the professor of rowing coaches, Mike Spracklen, was not renewed by the British team, Richardson implored Rowing Canada to hire him.

"It was a brave and very gutsy decision to put money into coaching," Richardson said. "You look at any program, be it peewee baseball, soccer or rowing, if you put the people in place, wherever you see a really good program, there is usually a good coach.

"(Rowing Canada) made a huge commitment bringing over Mike Spracklen. They said if they bring over a coach, then the rest will follow. And they were right."

Spracklen, who had coached Canadian Olympic great Silken Laumann in both the 1992 and 1996 Games, quickly had an impact with the men. Before long, disgruntled rowers were coming back to the program and by 2002, the vaunted men's eight claimed the world championship.

The eight-man team repeated last year and was joined by the men's heavyweight four, which didn't even have a boat in the 2000 Games. Three of the four in that crew returned to the program after leaving under a previous regime.

"He's our leader," men's four stalwart Jake Wetzel said of Spracklen. "It takes some time to build up your trust and respect. You can respect somebody through what you know about them, but until you actually interact with him over some time, you don't know what kind of relationship it will be. That's something he's developed with us over the last three years."

Richardson didn't mess with the women's program, keeping Al Morrow at the post that has seen him develop accomplished Olympians such as Marnie McBean, Kathleen Heddle, Emma Robinson and Alison Korn.

And now, just 47 days until the Games, the team is in better shape than any could have imagined three years ago. Seven boats -- four men and three women -- will be in the water in Athens and at least six will be considered medal threats.

With the rowing events starting the day after the opening ceremonies, the new guard of rowing could get Canada off to a rousing, motivational start.

"Together, our clear goal is to win gold medals," Richardson said. "The athletes have worked hard to achieve that. That is their expectation now."

All the better that it has come a little earlier than expected.


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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