Heroes and heartbreak at the London Games

Our most dramatic summer games may prove to be our best.

Heroes and heartbreak

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

The circumference of the outer track at London’s Olympic Stadium is about 500 m, which is fine for a runner, but much longer than Derek Drouin anticipated when he snatched up a Maple Leaf flag Tuesday and set out on a victory lap. By the time he had worked his way from the high-jump pit, past the media tribunes and on to the stadium’s northwest side, where his family sat beaming, five precious minutes had slipped by. Impatient TV producers waited to get the show under way.

The clock-watchers could wait. In what may go down as the sweetest surprise of Canada’s Summer Games, the 22-year-old from Corunna, Ont., ended his country’s track-and-field-medal drought in London with a bronze, giving Canada its first podium finish in high jump since Greg Joy took silver in Montreal in 1976. Drouin would have to share: Mutaz Barshim of Qatar and Robert Grabarz of Britain jumped the same height of 2.29 m in as many attempts. But as he faced the media in the stadium’s lower concourse—more media than he’d seen in a dozen years of competing—the weight of his accomplishment started to sink in. Joy was “an incredible jumper,” he observed, adding: “It feels good to be in his company, and to be the first one to do it since a long time before I was born, that feels great.”

Canada’s path to Olympic glory is seldom simple, and never predictable. China loads up on medals with its swimmers and gymnasts. The Americans rule track. But as the London Olympics move into their final phase, Canadian athletes are doing what they have for decades: grinding out podium finishes here or there, in many cases to the astonishment of the sports punditocracy, yet invariably to the delight of underdog-loving fans back home. Drouin is a case in point: raised in a tiny town outside Sarnia, Ont., he could stand in for the Canadian actor Michael Cera, famous for playing lovable doofuses in Hollywood comedies. Yet almost without notice, Drouin has quietly become a force in his sport, winning three National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) high-jumping titles for Indiana University and winning last June’s Olympic trials in Calgary with a jump of 2.31.

His bronze-medal performance on Tuesday was a masterpiece of nerve and skill, as he ignored rain showers and the thrum of an 80,000-strong crowd. As the field narrowed, all eyes turned to Russia’s Ivan Ukhov, the 2010 world indoor champion who ultimately won gold by leaping 2.38 m, and U.S. jumper Erik Kynard, who won silver. Even after the cheers for Kynard had died down, the unassuming Canadian seemed an addendum—the last to find his flag and take his tour of the stadium. But that was just fine with Drouin. “I’m happy going under the radar,” he said. “I like being the underdog.”

Sometimes underdogs even strike gold, as one did on the trampoline. The Canadian Olympic Committee had looked to two storied veterans of the sport to finally reach the top of the podium. There was high-flying Jason Burnett, a silver medallist in Beijing, and 31-year-old Karen Cockburn, the grande dame of bounce: bronze in Sydney, and a silver medallist in Athens and Beijing. But when the time came for a golden performance—Canada’s first and at press time only gold medal in London—it was delivered by 23-year-old Rosie MacLennan of King City, a village north of Toronto.

Ranked fourth going into the finals, she chose the right moment to deliver a near-flawless routine. “You have nothing to lose,” she said later with a laugh, “so you might as well just give ’er.” And she did, earning 57.305 points, the best of her career.

MacLennan’s joy of the moment was tempered when Cockburn, her friend and mentor for more than 15 years, was bounced off the podium into fourth place at the last moment by a flawed performance by He Wenna, the Beijing gold medallist. The Chinese gymnast lost her footing on her last landing, falling backwards. Her score was judged just good enough for third place, crushing Cockburn’s bid to become the first woman in the sport to win medals at four Olympic Games. “Fourth is the worst place to finish,” a tearful Cockburn said. MacLennan called the moment “bittersweet. Our dream was to be on the podium no matter where it was.”

Still, standing on the top spot of the podium was decidedly more sweet than bitter. She thrust her arms in the air, and when O Canada was played, she shed a few of the good kind of tears and tried to sing along until the “surreal” moment got the better of her. Afterwards, she admitted she was at a loss, a condition many of her fellow 276 Canadian Olympians here may share after four years of work and dreams. She glanced down at her medal. “It hasn’t quite hit me yet,” she said. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.”

While the trampoline delivered just one medal (Burnett’s bid for the podium ended when he hit the edge of the trampoline on a landing and fell), Canada found its mojo in the pool, after a dismal shutout in Athens and some bitter memories of Beijing. For four years now, distance swimmer Ryan Cochrane’s training program in Victoria has been propelled by a self-directed frustration with his performance in Beijing. While the country was elated with his bronze there in the 1,500-m swim, Cochrane recalls how pain overwhelmed him in the last throes of the race, allowing Oussama Mellouli of Tunisia to overtake him for gold; Australia’s Grant Hackett took silver.

Heading for London, Cochrane’s strategy was to embrace pain, make it his buddy, training partner and motivating force. He pushed past the pain threshold every day with every swim, “so I would know that when I got to race day that nothing was going to be that hard.”

That day, 23-year-old Cochrane moved up the podium to silver, Canada’s first silver medal in the pool since the 1996 Atlanta Games. While he came second to China’s indomitable Sun Yang, who shaved three seconds off his own world record, Cochrane was satisfied that he’d left everything he had in the pool, and this time he held off a late charge by Mellouli, leaving the defending Olympic champion with bronze. “When he passed me in Beijing, I wasn’t expecting it. But today I was,” he said. “And I was going to fight—probably ’til the death—to make sure he didn’t get me.” As for Sun Yang, Cochrane believes with enough work he can catch him.

Brent Hayden of Mission, B.C., had demons of his own to exorcise. He’d come up empty in Athens, and made a terrible miscalculation in Beijing, easing up so much in the semi-finals to conserve energy that he lost his chance to swim in the 100-m freestyle finals. This time, at age 28, there would be no mistake. He hired one of the world’s best start coaches to get him out of the blocks faster. The edge was enough to earn bronze in London, 0.28 of a second behind winner Nathan Adrian of the U.S. and James Magnussen of Australia. With that Hayden became the first Canadian to win a medal in one of swimming’s marquee events.

“Tonight was just digging down deep right into my soul,” Hayden said. “I kind of had the urge to kiss the starting block, because I just never knew I could love Lane 7 so much.” And speaking of love, he tops off a busy August with a post-Olympic wedding to Nadina Zarifeh, a Lebanese-Canadian pop singer. It was one of her songs he listened to before his medal-winning swim.

For a winter-sport nation, medals never come easy for Canadians at the Summer Games. But while the top spot on the podium remains elusive, there are enough silver and bronze performances in hand, and other strong contenders ahead in the final days of the Games, to potentially reach or surpass the 18 won in Beijing. In rowing, the men’s and women’s eight boats accounted for two more silver medals, and a host of Canadians have found the Bronze Age isn’t such a bad place to be.

Not all Olympic events are about winning medals, however. Some of Canada’s most dramatic moments have come from athletes who’ve fallen short of the podium, and from others who’ve stared down disaster and heartbreak. The remarkable Clara Hughes, Canada’s best all-around Olympian, finished her sixth—and last—Olympic Games with a fifth place in the time trial. With two cycling and four speed-skating medals, she was content to know she’d run the best race she could. “I felt good—in the sense that it felt like hell,” she said of her gruelling ride. “I gave everything I had, but it just wasn’t good enough.”

Whether Canada’s women’s soccer team finishes with a bronze medal is still to be decided at this writing, but one thing is certain: the losing match they played on a Monday night in Manchester against their nemesis, the U.S., was a game to remember. The speed, the footwork, the grit and skill by both teams is certain to inspire a whole generation of young girls to take up the sport, though they may wish to take a pass on refereeing. Canadian team captain Christine Sinclair’s three goals, every one of them a skill play, was as memorable as the flash and fire in her eyes. What the outcome of the 4-3 game might have been if Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen hadn’t called a rarely used penalty against Canadian goaltender Erin McLeod for holding the ball beyond the six-second rule is impossible to know. It will be up to the Canadian women to forge their anger into bronze when they face France in their last Olympic match.

The triathlon course offered a triple dose of disappointment, disaster and heartbreak for two of Canada’s great athletes. Paula Findlay’s tearful decision to run out her race when she was a distant last, more than 12 minutes behind the leader, is an object lesson in courage and determination. Hobbled by a hip injury for much of last year, her legs were dead, her stamina was gone—the 23-year-old ran on guts and heart. “Stupid legs,” she said later. Wobbling toward the finish, she looked for her family in the stands, thinking she had failed them, failed her friends, failed her country. Far from it. She showed everything that’s good about the Olympics, and very little of that has to do with medals.

Even before she’d crossed the line, Simon Whitfield, Canada’s greatest triathlete, angrily rushed to the defence of his friend and protege. He went public with blunt criticism of the failure of Findlay’s support staff to properly diagnose, treat and manage her return from injury. In doing so, the 37-year-old two-time medallist and Canadian flag-bearer at these Games put his own reputation on the line, just a day before his own event.

Whitfield’s race on Tuesday also turned into disaster. He emerged from the water only to crash his bike spectacularly into a speed bump and metal fence as he struggled to clip into his shoes, hurting his collarbone, carving up his legs and a big toe and smashing his head. End of race. End of four years of the hardest training he’s ever done. “Stupid speed bump,” he said later, subdued and composed.

His “breakdown moment,” as he called it, came after the doctors stitched up his foot and examined his contusions. He found his wife, Jennie, under the grandstands with their daughters Pippa, 5, and Evelyn, 2. Pippa held out a motley bouquet of leaves. He hugged Jennie, his partner in sacrifice during the long days and lonely nights apart during his training and travel, and the tears flowed. He winced from the pain of his collarbone and she managed a smile. “You can still drink beer with your right hand, right?” she asked.

Whitfield, like many athletes here, avoided questions about future plans. These are likely to be the last Olympics for many familiar names: Karen Cockburn, Jessica Zelinka, Brent Hayden, diving legends Émilie Heymans, who finished with a bronze, and Alexandre Despatie, who finished a disappointing 11th on Tuesday. Some have announced their retirements; for others it’s a decision to be made at a quieter time, as they leave the field to a new generation. People like Paula Findlay: “The red-headed assassin will be back,” Whitfield said. “You’ll see her at the top of the podium.” There’s Heymans’s diving partner Jennifer Abel, and the golden gal Rosie MacLennan. Each generation faces its own challenge, summed up by MacLennan’s candid response: “It’s still sinking in. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.”

Follow Maclean’s reporters live on Twitter from the Olympic Games in London: Jonathon Gatehouse @JonGatehouse; Charlie Gillis @ChasGillis; Ken MacQueen @kmqyvr

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