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COLUMNISTS

Mon, August 23, 2004

Drowning in disaster


SCHNINIAS -- Ben Rutledge stood tall, sucked in a steamy breath and then exhaled his share of the blame for the most crushing Canadian loss yet.

The mighty men's eight had not only failed to bring home the gold at these Olympic Games, they were a badly beaten fifth.

For a crew that arrived here at the Schinias Rowing and Canoe Centre for the Olympic rowing regatta as the two-time defending world champions, the loss was as devastating as it was stunning.

How could it happen? A little choke, perhaps, and not enough stroke.

"I panicked," Rutledge said of how he came unglued in the final 500 metres of a race dominated by the Americans, seemingly slipping in his seat and throwing the rest of the crew off.

"I may have pushed too hard too early. I've never done something like that before. I just couldn't move. You hear the coxswain yelling, you hear your teammates, it's tough."

It's also impossible to blame one man in an eight-seat boat for such a crushing loss.

FINISHED WELL BACK

After finishing a few one-hundredths of a second behind the U.S. in their heat a week ago, yesterday they were chugging 9.18 seconds back of the winners and more than seven seconds behind the bronze-medal Aussies.

As you might guess, the Canadians were stunned by the degree of the thrashing.

"It's a case of not performing and choosing the wrong time to do it," men's coach Mike Spracklen said flatly. "It was a shock. The hype, the pressure, it gets to an athlete.

"If one athlete becomes afraid, that load is carried by the other seven people. In a panic situation, people behave differently, don't they?"

It didn't help that Winnipeg's Jeff Powell pulled a muscle in the shoulder area in the repechage this past Tuesday. Coaches felt he was fine to row for the gold, however (albeit with some freezing in the shoulder), and did not consider using team spares Rob Weitemeyer or Andrew Ireland.

In fairness, the race may have been lost shortly after the start when the Americans sprinted out to an early lead. The Canadians couldn't match that initial burst and it was a struggle from there on.

VOID OF MOMENTUM

When Rutledge began to falter, the boat was devoid of momentum and any hope of bronze was sinking fast for a crew that came to these Games on a 17-race unbeaten streak.

"As Ben started to come out of (rhythm) ... there's absolutely no way we could continue to go faster," Edmonton's Andrew Hoskins said. "I'm not sure what happened to Ben. I know Ben gave her, he always does. I'm proud of the guy."

Rutledge was a late addition to the eight, bumping veteran Darren Barber from the boat in early July. He was coming off knee surgery last winter, but the B.C. native impressed coaches with his work in the spring and earned a spot in the glamour boat.

"I don't have any qualms about that decision whatsoever," Rowing Canada head coach Brian Richardson said. "Ben Rutledge showed demonstrably that he was a better athlete. Changing the boat didn't have an effect on (yesterday's) performance."

None of his teammates were going to hang him out either, citing the win-as-a-team, lose-as-a-team mantra that had taken them so far.

"One of the guys obviously wasn't able to do it and was struggling, but it's not his fault," coxswain Brian Price said. "People were coming at us at that point anyway.

"We've done this for four years as a team and we're still a team. We lost (yesterday) as a team."


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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