Rowing Canada’s troubled waters

Legendary coach Mike Spracklen has a ‘cult following’—but not everyone is a believer

Pulling apart

Photograph by Kevin Light

His name is Jeremiah Brown. He spent four years on the offensive line of the McMaster University Marauders football team. He’s here—improbably—rowing on Elk Lake outside of Victoria, enduring coach Mike Spracklen’s brutal training regime because he saw Spracklen’s Canadian men’s eight row a near perfect race to Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008. He wanted what they had: that moment, that bond, that medal. Remarkably, after just 1,728 hours of learning how to row, and some 2,646 hours and counting rowing on Canada’s national team—and when you train under Spracklen you count the minutes—he has a place in the eight boat. He’s earned Spracklen’s respect and, most likely when the roster is finalized, a trip to the London Olympics this summer. None of that is good enough this morning. Brown’s last transit of the lake in a pairs boat failed to meet some standard the rower had set for himself. He bellows out an expletive that rolls across the water.

In the coach’s boat, 74-year-old Spracklen cracks a smile. “He hasn’t realized rowing is a gentleman’s sport,” he says. There’s more than a little irony in Spracklen’s understated aside. Behind the scenes there’s been nothing gentle about Spracklen’s last few years—“the worst period of my rowing life,” he will say in an interview. Internationally, he is viewed as one of the great coaches in rowing history—and one of the most controversial. He engenders huge loyalty—a cult-like following, says one university rowing coach with some disapproval—among rowers who buy into his unforgiving low-tech, high-volume training methods. Other rowers can’t abide either the Spracklen Method, as his training regime is known, or his blunt, take-no-prisoners nature. Yet few coaches in any sport have delivered his results—more than 20 world championship podium performances and 10 Olympic medals over his three decades—many of these for Canada.

In the new bottom-line approach to Canadian Olympic sport, Rowing Canada has delivered the goods at international regattas, and accounted for four of Canada’s 18 medals in Beijing. As a result, Own the Podium, Canada’s sport funding mechanism, poured $7.4 million into rowing in the four years between Beijing and London, far more than any other sport. The extra money finances coaches, additional travel, support staff, better facilities, the latest in sports science—and the expectation to deliver medals at the Eton Dorney racecourse this August.

Even after his crew won gold at rowing’s marquee event in Beijing in 2008, Spracklen says the forces of Rowing Canada arrayed against him. “There are people who don’t think I should be doing what I do,” he says, spearing a piece of French toast—no syrup—at a nearby restaurant after the morning row. “I’m told that I was bad for the team. I have a caustic nature, an aggressive nature.” He says this quietly, frankly, with an edge of sadness in his gentle Buckinghamshire accent.

Things began to unravel in November 2010 at the world championships in New Zealand, after a weak showing by the Canadian men in general and the men’s eight in particular. The big boat containing only one member of the Beijing gold medal crew—the rest had moved on with their lives—failed to advance to the finals. “The men’s eight is an important boat for our team,” said Rowing Canada’s high performance director Peter Cookson. “They are a group of good athletes and we have to do some figuring out as to why the performance was below what we expected.” In Spracklen’s view, his record of success was forgotten there and then. “As soon as you have one step down, out come the knives, as they did after Beijing.”

What followed were months of turmoil, boiling below the surface of one of Canada’s most successful sports federations. There was a formal assessment of Spracklen’s suitability as coach, conducted, curiously, by a college basketball coach. “That was humiliating in itself,” he says. “Why would you ask a basketball coach to show us how to row?” The rowers were called in individually for extensive interviews. During those days Spracklen wasn’t allowed near his crews. Though the report wasn’t released to the team, several rowers suggest that there was unhappiness with how Spracklen selected crew members for the prestigious eight boat, both in Beijing, and afterwards. “One of the things I was criticized for was favouritism,” says Spracklen. “It’s very flattering to think I can win a gold medal at the Olympics with my favourites—people who aren’t very good. But it’s a bit naive to think that the [Olympic] standard is that low.”

Spracklen was removed as lead coach for the heavyweight men. In a Solomon-like decision, Rowing Canada left Spracklen in charge of the men’s eight boat and named Terry Paul, who coached with Spracklen in the lead up to Beijing, as heavyweight men’s coach with responsibility for the so-called small-boat crew: the fours, pairs and singles.

Cookson says the review assessed the direction of the program at Elk Lake, and wasn’t an attempt to target Spracklen. “We felt it was an appropriate time, halfway through the [Olympic] quadrennial, to review our high performance programs and operations,” he says. “Issues came out in the review that we needed to deal with, but Mike has been supported by Rowing Canada since that time.”

The split into big and small boat crews was based in part on “athlete input” and a decision to spread the workload to qualify as many boats as possible for London, Cookson said. Spracklen is still left, he notes, with direct or indirect responsibility for three potential medal boats: the eight, the lightweight men’s double and the lightweight women’s double. The latter boat opened another divide—all women’s crews are supposed to train at the Fanshawe Lake rowing centre in London, Ont., and decidedly not alongside Spracklen’s hulking eight boat crew in B.C. where the pairs now train. With the Olympics on the horizon, Cookson isn’t eager to fight old battles. “Mike has had incredible success with the men’s eight in his time with Rowing Canada,” he says diplomatically, “and is certainly one of, if not the best, men’s eight coaches in the world.”

Still, the split has cleaved the coaches and Elk Lake crews into rival camps, competing, for better or worse, against each other, and against the world. Spracklen’s old-school method—row until you can’t row another stroke, then row some more—is up against Paul’s less confrontational approach: an embrace of an array of sports therapists and technology, and his belief in breaking up heavy sessions on the water and the ergometer rowing machines with different “modalities”: swimming, cycling, running.

Paul has been both athlete and coach with Spracklen. He was the coxswain in 1992 on the Canadian men’s eight that Spracklen, two years after leaving the British rowing system, coached to a gold medal in the Barcelona Olympics. He credits Spracklen with changing the culture of Canadian rowing for the better in those early days. “I also see there’s an incredible upside to the work, the volume, the competitive nature to it,” Paul says, of Spracklen’s approach. “But there’s a downside.” That’s perhaps an unspoken reference to two of Spracklen’s greatest disappointments: top-ranked Olympic eight boats—the Americans he coached in Atlanta in 1996 and the Canadians in 2004 in Athens. Both made it to the finals only to finish fifth.

Paul says his former mentor hasn’t changed his approach. “One of his methods is to rally, circle the wagons and get the guys focused only on [themselves],” says Paul. “Mike coached me for three years. I know exactly how it works. I know what he says to them and I knew it was bulls–t then.” Spracklen’s undeniable bond with his crew requires conflict, he says. “It’s them against the world. He has to have an adversary. I’m like, ‘Mike, don’t use us as your adversary. We’re on the same team. We’re not the bad guys. Save that for the Germans.’ ”

Her name is Lindsay Jennerich. She’s among the world’s most gifted lightweight rowers: a world champion in 2010 and a silver medallist the next year, both with different partners. At five foot five, small for a rower, she has a warrior spirit that has earned the respect of the brotherhood of Elk Lake. The price she paid to train here, rather than in the women’s program in London, is a case in point.

She’s here because Fanshawe Lake freezes in the winter, and Elk Lake doesn’t. She wants to be on the water, no matter how ugly Elk Lake gets in the chill rain and wind of a winter’s day. More importantly, she’s wanted to train with Spracklen from as far back as 2002. “What Mike does with his group is really amazing,” she says after a morning row. “I believe there is something right for everyone, something different for everyone, but I recognized fairly early on that was going to be a program and an environment that would be right for me.”

Jennerich’s move to Elk Lake triggered a dispute with Rowing Canada brass. They pulled the $1,500-a-month carding paid to top-level athletes as well as other training assistance money. “I took a financial hit as well as emotionally, that’s hard, too.” The carding has since been restored—Jennerich is a key piece in an Olympic-bound boat—but she went long months without it. “You can threaten me with money, but you’re threatening me with the wrong thing because it’s never been about the money,” she says. “I’m grateful for it, however, it’s not the driving force. It’s not what’s going to make me change my mind.”

The drama continued this spring. Spracklen and the doubles immediate coach Kenny Wu had to choose who to pair with the dominant Jennerich in the boat bound for the Samsung World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland, and likely London. The choice was between Tracy Cameron, the 37-year-old veteran who won the world championship with Jennerich, or 20-year-old phenom Patricia Obee, who paired with Jennerich to qualify the boat for London when Cameron was sidelined with a rib injury. Spracklen decided on one race-off between Obee and Cameron for all the marbles. It was a brutally honest test of performance under pressure. Experience won out and Cameron, who had done most of her training in London, Ont., took the race, and the seat.

With Lucerne then just weeks away, Cameron and Jennerich were working to regain their past form. Jennerich is also determined to put the fight for Elk Lake behind her. She knows she’s cast as a “rebel” by Rowing Canada. “You have to stay the course, but it doesn’t mean you don’t get hurt by some of the things that happen.” I tell her Spracklen said exactly that about his own situation. “I take that as a compliment,” she says.

Paul embraces the use of technology, of physiologists to measure and tweak optimum performances, and the team therapists and sports scientists, strategies employed by other leading countries. He acts as gatekeeper to ensure the athletes aren’t overwhelmed or distracted. “I’ve enabled these people to add their level of expertise to make the athletes better,” he says. “I don’t see that as a threat or a concern at all.”

Spracklen is all for rewarding performance. As for all the new techniques, technologies and therapies that Rowing Canada wants utilized, not so much. He’s pleased with the better financial aid for athletes, and a new nutrition program that dishes up post-workout protein shakes and healthy high-energy breakfasts—better to feed the 7,000 to 8,000 daily calories the heavyweight men shovel in. He’ll use high-definition video to gauge balance, blade and body angle, but unlike other national rowing coaches, he’s no fan of such things as wiring boats and paddles to offer real-time computer graphs of stroke performance.

“Having been through this now for 30 years, you know what works and what doesn’t work,” he says. “I have a difficulty in getting guys to keep their blade covered in the water,” he says. “When they can row perfectly, then maybe I should be looking at force curves.”

Perhaps none of this matters. It’s clear both the small and big boat crews buy into their coach’s respective training regimens. Dave Calder and Scott Frandsen—silver medallists in Beijing, the stars of the small boat crew and its priority boat, the heavyweight pair—fully back Paul’s leadership. They’ve little time for Spracklen’s approach.

Spracklen’s crews are equally loyal. Brian Price, the veteran coxswain of the eight, says he would have quit had the coach been let go. Powerhouse rower Malcolm Howard, a gold medallist in Beijing, returned to the eight last year after two years as a single sculler. He missed the camaraderie, and Spracklen’s relentless drive. “There’s no doubt about it that he’s willing to hurt feelings,” he says. “It hurts him to [do it]. He doesn’t enjoy it when he does it, but he feels that’s how he’s got to push it.”

I look down at Howard’s massive hands, and the thick pad of callouses on his palms: “That’s what friction does.” “Exactly,” he says. “It makes them stronger.”

Canada’s rowers faced the world’s best in Lucerne two months before the ultimate test in London. They left with three medals on May 27, a result that did little to resolve the internal rivalries among coaches and rowers.

The women’s eight of Fanshawe Lake ran a spectacular race, placing second in a photo finish, edged by the Americans by just 0.03 of a second. Paul’s crew of Calder and Frandsen came second behind heavily favoured New Zealand. “Our training and hard work has proved that you can teach an old dog new tricks,” Calder said afterwards. Jennerich and Cameron finished a disappointing eighth, still a work in progress.

As for Spracklen’s eight, they won their heat on Friday, and set a new world-record time. On Sunday, they were beaten off the line and finished behind Germany and Britain. It signalled the Canadian eight’s return as a viable threat. But, bronze? Not good enough. In Spracklen’s world it never is.

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