Fri, September 20, 2013

Canada's leading Olympians say goodbye to Games

By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency


Kayak legend Adam van Koeverden is one of several Canadian Olympic stars who won't be back for the 2016 Rio Games. (DAVE ABEL/QMI AGENCY)


LONDON - Adam van Koeverden started to talk about Simon Whitfield but in mid-conversation had to stop to compose himself.

He knew he was about to cry.

He had cried the day or so before, watching Whitfield’s sudden departure from the Olympic Games and he allowed himself to cry “because it was a healthy show of emotion.”

But it was a lot more than even that. It was about van Koeverden. It was about Whitfield. It was about the times. It was about the end being so near and so personal for so many great Canadian Olympians.

And it is hitting him — all of them, really — hard as the final weekend of the Summer Olympics is now upon us: This is the great goodbye for many of Canada’s most decorated and accomplished Olympians. And they look around here, and they see their teammates from three or four different Games, the veterans in red, the names we debate to carry flags or anything else of importance, and they are proud, sad, nostalgic, appreciative, wistful — too many emotions to detail, really — and have so little time left on their Olympic clocks.

One day it was Whitfield talking about van Koeverden and the next day the opposite. Both of them, in separate conversations, evoked the name of Clara Hughes, the quintessential Canadian Olympian. They aren’t just athletes, these Team Canada members, they’re friends. And more than that, they’re fans of each other, as athletes, as people. They’re sporting family, really.

“When I start talking Olympics, I always end up quoting Clara,” said Whitfield, the Canadian flag bearer. “She uses all the right words, the right expressions. She just knows which words to say and how they’ll make you feel a certain way.”

“I could write a book on all of them,” said van Koeverden, although he wasn’t actually talking about writing a book.

It was the book inside of him. A book of knowledge, relationships, so much of it personal. When you travel all over the world together, beginning as kids really, growing into adults, as individual athletes but as teammates from a most diverse array of sports, in a way you grow up together, you can’t help but build relationships.

That’s why van Koeverden lights up when he speaks of Whitfield, and Whitfield lights up when he speaks of the decorated diver, Alexandre Despatie.

“Alex,” Whitfield said of the two-time Olympic medal winner. “How do you not love Alex? The guy is such a competitor. Look what he’s accomplished all over the world for us. He’s been doing it since he was a kid.”

When you do the math and add up all the decorations, from van Koeverden to Whitfield, from Hughes to trampolinist Karen Cockburn, from diver Emilie Heymans to wrestler Tonya Verbeek, from Despatie to Daniel Nestor, that’s 25 Olympic medals saying goodbye all at once.

“I feel fortunate to have been part of that group,” said van Koeverden. “You take a little bit from every one of them. You learn something.”

“There’s a lot of great friends in those names,” said Whitfield.

Some of them go back far enough that they competed in the 1999 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg. For some, like Nestor, this was their fifth Summer Olympics. And for almost two decades this group has been at the core of Canadian opportunity, leadership, and achievement.

How do you replace them? And where do the next Canadian Olympic leaders come from?

Van Koeverden watched Hughes’s last Olympic bike race while on a bus. “It didn’t matter to me she came fifth, she’s amazing.”

He calls Despatie “one of my best buddies, an amazing guy” and before his run for gold in kayak, wrote Whitfield’s name on his boat. “I didn’t have a marker so I wrote it with my finger.” And before that, Whitfield wrote the name of a former Canadian rower, Adam Creek, on his handlebars.

The connection is deep and strong and will continue to live, just not as Olympic athletes.

“There’s a commonality between us,” said Hughes, in her sixth and final Olympics as an athlete of both Summer and Winter Games. “We watch each other, pull for each other, we’ve been together for some of our best moments and some of our worsts. We’ll always be teammates.”

There just won’t be another Games, barring a mind change, for any of them to play in.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonsteve