Taking up the torch: van Koeverden and Oldershaw paddle to the podium

’Van kayak’ pays tribute to the fallen, Oldershaw makes family history
Canada’s Mark Oldershaw canoes to bronze in the men’s 1000-metre canoe single (C1) final at Eton Dorney during the 2012 Summer Olympics in Dorney, England on Friday, August 8, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada's Mark Oldershaw canoes to bronze in the men's 1000-metre canoe single (C1) final. Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Adam van Koeverden stood at the edge of the dock with tears in his eyes. Not the hot ones of disappointment and frustration he cried four years ago in Beijing, after finishing a distant eighth in the final of the men’s kayak 1000m, the worst race of his life. At London 2012, the moistening gaze came when he started to talk about his friend Simon Whitfield.

He’d been emotional on Tuesday, when Canada’s flag bearer crashed his bike in the men’s triathlon, bringing a quick and bloody end to his dreams of a third Olympic medal. But the real waterworks came when he saw the picture of the 37-year-old embracing his wife, Jennie, on the side of the course. “Jennie is the stalwart of that family,” van Koeverden explained. “Simon is run, bike, swim and Jenny is diapers, laundry, cooking and daycare.” The paddler desperately wanted to see his friend on the podium. If only because those who have loved and supported him over the cycle of four Summer Games deserved it as much as he did.

So at the Eton-Dorney rowing course this morning, van Koeverden decided to pay tribute to the fallen. Five minutes before the start of the K-1000m final, sitting waiting in his boat, he reached out and traced Whitfield’s name on its shell. He wanted to do it in marker—the same way the triathlete had written rower Adam Kreek’s name on his handlebar tape when he won silver in Beijing—but he forgotten to bring one along. No mind, it was the thought that counted. When the starter’s gun went off, the 30-year-old from Oakville, Ont. took off and led the field down the course with the fastest time over 750m. Another paddling gold seemed within reach until the final few metres when Eirik Veras Larsen of Norway caught up and edged by. The difference between the top two steps of the podium was just over seven seconds. But for once van Koeverden wasn’t that gutted by a silver.

“This one is for the Whitfield legacy,” he said looking down at the medallion hanging around his neck and smiling. He had paid it forward.

And there were other reasons to be happy, if not fully contented. Larsen has been a friend, training partner and rival for the past 14 years. By van Koeverden’s estimation they’ve probably run 1,000 such contests, mostly away from the eyes of the public and media, and split them pretty much 50-50. They are the top two kayakers in the world and until this morning were tied with one Olympic gold, silver and bronze each. “This was the tie-breaker,” said van Koeverden. “And I have to take my hat off to him. I had the race I wanted to. It’s not a case of a screwed up race plan, it’s a case of one guy out of  7 billion people being better than me. And I can live with that.”

But perhaps the greatest cause for joy was the performance of another close friend, Canada’s Mark Oldershaw. Just minutes after van Koeverden’s podium finish, the 29-year-old from Burlington, Ont. struck bronze in C-1000 metre canoe race, coming from far back in the back and narrowly missing silver.

Still grinning afterward, he spoke about hitting the wall at the halfway point, and then finding the will to push through. “You think it’s just you getting tired. And for a moment you say in your head, should I stop? It hurts and you know it’s just going to hurt more and more with every stroke. But then you look back at the last four years, the last 20 years and all the work I put in , and I said to myself if I don’t go for it now, what am I doing.”

A third generation Olympian—his grandfather Bert paddled in three Games starting in London in 1948, and was followed by three sons, including his dad Scott in Los Angeles in 1984—Mark is the first family member to win a medal. “To finally get the Oldershaw name on the Olympic podium, I’m really proud of it.”

As dad Scott, now his coach as well as van Koeverden’s, stood by beaming, Oldershaw again told the story of his grandfather’s first Olympic paddle. Bert, who has since passed on, gave it to him after he won the world junior canoeing championship in 2001. And for years it has hung on his bedroom wall back home as inspiration. The paddle, short and wooden—”I think it might break if I took one stroke with it,” says the well-muscled grandson—even made the trip to London as a good luck charm.

But after this morning, Oldershaw has a keepsake of his own. His plan was to get his own paddle, high-tech Fiberglas and metal, signed by all the other competitors in the final just like Bert had. It too will go up on the bedroom wall. And one day, a few decades down the line, he’s going to pass it on to his own grandkids. And hope he’ll be there to cheer another generation of the family on to Olympic glory.