Canadian Kayakers Win Medals at 2004 Athens Games

WHEN THERE was no one left to beat in Canada, Adam van Koeverden went looking for the rest of the world. Digging deep into his own pockets a couple of years back, the 22-year-old Oakville, Ont.

Canadian Kayakers Win Medals at 2004 Athens Games

WHEN THERE was no one left to beat in Canada, Adam van Koeverden went looking for the rest of the world. Digging deep into his own pockets a couple of years back, the 22-year-old Oakville, Ont., kayaker flew to Australia for the winter, to Europe for the summer and then to Florida for another winter. He became a full-time paddling nomad, crashing on the floors of any member of the sport's elite who would agree to take him on as a training partner. He absorbed their lessons, and then started handing out his own. When he finished second at last year's world championships, the Norwegians got wise, telling him he was "too dangerous" to keep hanging around. In Athens, they were proven right.

Standing dockside early on the Games' final Saturday, van Koeverden closed his eyes, drew a deep breath and took the biggest step of his life - to the top of the Olympic podium as the men's K1 500-m gold medallist. "The feeling is indescribable," he said. "I just savoured it." Twenty-four hours before, he'd lifted his teammates' spirits with a hard-won bronze in the K1 1,000 m. But that race wasn't perfect; there was something left to prove in the 500. "I remember lining up and thinking, 'You're not done yet. You can do better.' " Second out of the start, van Koeverden windmilled down a choppy course, catching Nate Baggaley of Australia in the final 100 m to claim victory by half a kayak length.

With 10 boats and every single member of the Canadian squad advancing to finals here, the pressure was on the canoeists and kayakers to pump up the nation's anemic medal count. The cocky van Koeverden had challenged his teammates to aspire to more than the "ultra-Canadian" goal of simply making the Olympic cut. They tried gamely, but in the end, only he and the veteran Caroline Brunet of Lac-Beauport, Que., were able to raise their games.

Brunet, a five-time Olympian, took bronze in the women's 500-m sprint but her mood was anything but celebratory. Having already won silvers in Atlanta and Sydney, the 35-year-old came out of retirement for one last shot at Olympic gold, the only prize that eluded her grasp over a stellar two-decade career. At the medal ceremony, she moved like a sleepwalker, momentarily hesitating in front of the podium's second-place spot before being gently directed to the lowest step. "I don't believe in destiny," she said solemnly. "I don't think it exists anymore."

A convincing win in the heats had given Brunet hope the stars might finally be aligning. But when a howling wind woke her at 2:30 a.m. on the day of the finals, Brunet, whose strengths are greatest on flat, calm water, knew she was in trouble. "I felt like getting up and writing about it," she says. By race time, the weather was slightly calmer, but the breeze was still stiff enough to push her KAYAK diagonally at the gate, and cost her a fast start. She clawed her way up to third place, but was never able to catch the gold winner, Natasa Janics, of Hungary, and the silver medallist, Josefa Idem of Italy. Brunet had one more chance at gold, in the K2 500-m final with fellow Quebecer Mylanie Barré, but placed seventh. The quest for gold is now definitively over, she says: "I'm of a kayaking generation that's on its final metres."

The three-medal haul is Canada's best canoe-kayak tally since the 1984 Los Angeles Games. With the torch now passed to van Koeverden and other young paddlers, there is a sense the team will be even stronger come 2008. Veteran Attila Buday, who along with his brother Tamas Jr. placed eighth in the C2 500 m, says van Koeverden's mental toughness should serve as an inspiration. "A lot of people sort of crumble at the OLYMPICS, and they can't do what they have to do," Buday says. "But Adam just came and kicked butt."

The newly minted Olympic champion, who returns to his kinesiology studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., this fall, says he has at least one more Summer Games in his future. "It would be hard to go back and motivate myself to train if I had won two golds," he says. "But I didn't." That's bad news for the rest of the world. A guy as dangerous as van Koeverden doesn't need any extra motivation.

Maclean's September 6, 2004