Legacies

This morning Adam Van Koeverden won his fourth Olympic medal, and if the International Canoe Federation hadn’t removed his best race, the K1 500m, he’d be working on his fifth tomorrow.  Adam, by virtue of his work ethic, has set an example for all athletes in all sports. By his own admission Adam wasn’t the best athlete as a kid, but I know very few people who can do anywhere close to the amount of work that this man can do.

Adam and I have been peers in age, and in a sense, sport since our first encounter at the 1997 Canada Games; two pimply, snot-nosed 15 years olds. And when, eight years ago, Adam began a journey to the realm of those who transcend their sports, I couldn’t have been more proud of my friend. Except for today, 15 years after we first met and half a lifetime later.  Adam is consistently pushing boundaries, and himself, like no one else I know. His race today was one of the bravest races I’ve seen, he handled a level of pressure I can’t fathom, and he deserves every accolade he gets.

As opposed to what follows below, Adam is the founder of his own legacy, which make his achievements all the more impressive. Adam will credit a number of people for helping him become the athlete he is today, and he won’t be lying, but I think Adam has had to figure a lot out by himself. He’s broken a lot of ground for this, and subsequent, generations of Canadian paddlers, and athletes in general. Adam has never waited to be shown how to do something, instead, he goes out and gets it done.

Also this morning, Mark Oldershaw brought Canada’s total number of Olympic Medalists in C1, to eight: it began in 1936 with Frank Amyot, then Norman Lane and Douglas Bennet in 1948, John Wood in ’76, Larry Cain in ’84, Steve Giles in 2000, yours truly in ’08 and now, Mark.  I’ve heard Larry speak about how John inspired him, and I know Larry inspired Steve, Mark and I. Steve, as someone we trained and raced with, had a huge influence on Mark and I as developing athletes. But that’s only part of the story. One name that’s missing is this story of legacy is Tamas Buday Sr., also known as Daddy-O.

Tamas, apart from his own extremely decorated career for his native Hungary, has been a national team coach at Canoe Kayak Canada since 1987. Tamas’ calm, quiet demeanour, aided by his 6’4 230lbs frame, commands instant respect from anyone he meets. But it isn’t through his size or profound knowledge that he has his greatest influence, it’s through his generous personality and love of paddling that he has influenced, and helped to coach, two generations of Olympic medalists. I can proudly say I am, and I think Mark would say the same, products of a system that Tamas helped grow. Part of what makes Tamas special is that he fostered a belief in giving back to the sport by way of helping young athletes develop.

The most pertinent example of this attitude of ‘giving back’ came in 2004 when Stevie Giles was going for his fourth Olympics at 105 years of age (ok, 34 but he seemed really old). Steve was hoping to defend his bronze from four years earlier in Sydney. Stevie knew this would be his last kick at the can and he choose to invite three young athletes to come train with him: Mark, Ian and I.  Out of all of us, Ian Mortimer was the fastest at the time, with astounding World Cup results, but fickle luck took its toll on Ian, and a few back-to-back injuries meant that he had to keep fighting his body. (Despite this, Ian has had a huge role on the team as an athlete and as someone who embodies the ethos of giving back more than anyone else I know.) Throughout that summer, Stevie, in his quiet and understated way, showed us how to be champions–or at least bronze medalists. We trained with him, watching in amazement as he sped away from us like we weren’t moving, while his coach, Tony Hall (sadly for Tony, no relation), pushed us so that we could push Steve to his limits. And when Stevie finished a close fifth in Athens, we all felt like we were a part of his result, and were inspired to pick up his mantle. Mark picked that mantle up in a big way this year, training with a core group of younger athletes on the team, all of whom are nipping at his heels, and who helped to push him to his limits.

To watch an athlete like Mark embody the legacy of performance and generosity left behind by athletes like Steve and Larry and coaches like Tamas, coupled with watching Adam transcend and add to that legacy, is more than simply inspiring. The simple act of giving a young athlete a helping hand can produce ripples that last for decades. These two medalists have demonstrated that in a huge way. The medals won today, through the support of families, friends, clubs, CKC and, of course, the legacy written about above, is what makes this morning special for me and, I’m sure, the rest of the Canadian Canoe Kayak community.

Now, for the 200M team racing tomorrow: Use those medals as inspiration, get to those finals, add a few more pieces of hardware and make this legacy even greater.