Mon, September 23, 2013

River Thames holy water to rowers

By THANE BURNETT, QMI Agency


Christina Matteotti of Lethbridge, Alta., rows on the holy waters of the River Thames in London, England, July 25, 2012. (AL CHAREST/QMI Agency)

LONDON - The way the tide moves to wake her up.

Upstream now -- faster she stretches -- heading in the direction of Craven Cottage football stadium, the gentrified and subdivided old Harrods Furniture Depository and just ahead, grabbing each bank, the green Victorian iron of Hammersmith Bridge.

There is no other waterway like the Thames -- holy water to dedicated rowers like Christina Matteotti.

And in this very early golden light, until West London rises to notice, Matteotti and two fellow Canadians are pretty much on their own to command and skip across it.

"It's the reason you read about the Thames in poetry," reasons Matteotti, who came to London from Lethbridge, Alta., in 2007 to study for her PhD in English Literature.

Along the way, she and a handful of Canadian expats -- including this morning on the water, Madeline O'Shaughnessy-Hunter from Brockville, Ont., and transplanted Port Colborne, Ont., teacher, Beth Hickey -- joined the celebrated old Thames Rowing Club.

And while they aren't Olympians who will race in Dorney Lake, a purpose-built rowing facility near the English village of Forney, Buckinghamshire, Matteotti and the other Thames Club members know they're in an enviable position.

THE MAGIC OF THE THAMES

Not that the Thames can't be a tricky, congested and, at times when the runoff is bad, a foul place to dip an oar.

Right -- there also is the matter of the pestilence and disease the river brought to London in centuries past. And, fine, bridges over the Thames are notorious for suicides -- especially one that is rich in legend after becoming a popular place where women have ended it all, down through the centuries.

But -- those nasty bits pushed downstream -- on a quite English morning of practice like this, it's difficult not to be carried along with its tide of history and symbolism.

Which may explain why a man recently involved in a protest over taxi drivers being excluded from a large part of special Olympic Games lanes, made his point by safely diving from Tower Bridge into the Thames.

To promote golf being included in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, pro players Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson teed off last week on a floating green bobbing on this waterway.

David Beckham used it to add to his particular international brand as he safely ferried the Olympic flame along the waters to the opening ceremonies.

And when Games traffic ties up cars and the Underground becomes unbearable, the super-rich and celebrities now use the river as a quick route from one swanky Olympic party to the next.

This particular river community -- where Canadian geese have landed to urge on their rowers -- is nicknamed 'The Bubble', because why would you ever have to leave?

Or want to?

I ask Matteotti and her fellow Canadian rowers if, while out on the water, they daydream of competing as Olympians, their oars digging into the waters at Dorney Lake?

Not really, they answer, pointing out that on the Thames, they're in the company of elite athletes constantly.

And, to be honest, I kind of suspect there's more than one Olympian who instead daydreams of waking up on the Thames during a morning just like this one.

thane.burnett@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @thaneburnett