Feb. 7, 2012
VICTORIA, British Columbia - The sun had yet to crest on Vancouver Island as the rowers ambled out of cars and made their way to the boathouse on Elk Lake. It is the training home for the Canadian National team, situated just two hours from Seattle but almost 5,000 miles from London, the site of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
On this particular morning, Husky crew coach Michael Callahan had made the short trip across the border to sit in on practice and observe how three of his current and former athletes - Conlin McCabe, Will Crothers and Rob Gibson - were acclimatizing to the rigors of international competition.
Bundled up in protection from the raw winter chill, each day for the Canadian Olympic hopefuls begins at 7:30 a.m. and doesn't end till late afternoon, combining multiple sessions on the water with weights and ergometer workouts.
The "Canadawgs" are three rowers who've used their Husky achievements as a springboard to the world stage. McCabe, on a one-year leave from Washington, joins fellow Canucks in Gibson and Crothers, both of whom were key components in the Huskies' run to a National Championship in 2009.
Overall, there are five Canadian-born Huskies who could possibly represent the Maple Leaf in London, including Anthony Jacob ('11) and Dave Calder ('00), two oarsmen who were in New Mexico training at Canada's high-altitude camp when Callahan visited.
This group rowing in Victoria has been instrumental in continuing the success of the Washington program, combining for three collegiate national championships between them. Now their challenge is to uphold the legacy of a Canadian national team seeking to defend its 8+ Olympic title on Eton Dorney Lake this summer.
As the fog began to evaporate off the lake, the Canadians were already in full swing for Workout No. 1 - 500 meter pieces in the single, up and down the course. Midway through the workout, the sweats and wool caps that protected from the cold were already stowed away. Facial grimaces told the story of lactic acid seeping into muscles, as the straining athletes knew each stroke was being scrutinized from the small launch trailing 10 meters behind.
Yet they weren't fazed by the grueling workouts orchestrated by iconic Canadian national team coach Mike Spracklen; after all, anyone who's witnessed one of the Huskies' training regimens can attest these UW rowers are physiologically able to handle the workload. Still, six to seven hours of training per day is not exactly a vacation, even for these elite rowers.
"In a word," said Gibson when asked to describe the training, "challenging."
Spracklen's "programme" is designed to stretch one's physical - and, at times, mental - capabilities. Think three to four workouts per day, six days a week (Sundays are, mercifully, rest days.)
On an average day, the athletes wake at 6:30 and within an hour are on the water for a two-hour row. After breakfast, treatment and maybe a quick nap, they're back on the water for another set in the four, working on building rates and boat speed. Lunch and another quick nap are followed by a turn in the weight room doing Olympic lifts like deadlifts and squats. Then the rowers head to the erg for two hours before dinner, leisure time and, famished from burning through calories, a second dinner. It's not unusual for the bone-weary 23-year-olds to be crawling into bed when most young men their age would be just gearing up for a night out.
"There are many days when I wake up and wonder how I'm going to get through each workout," Gibson admitted. "There are many days when I want to quit. But it seems that just when I'm on the brink, I will notice I have made progress and it motivates me to press on further."
The proof that Spracklen's program works for men's eights - evidenced by his victories in the 1992 and 2008 Olympics, along in the rowers' improved strength and speed - helps reaffirm the method behind the madness.
"We train as hard as we do," Crothers said, "so even on our worst day we can still win the Olympics."
"We find our motivation from each other, as we accumulate mileage together, we don't want to let each other down so we push through the highs and lows as a team," McCabe added. "We get motivated as we see that we can all do it together."
Off the water, being a full-time Olympic athlete is a bit less glamorous than TV footage of the Games might suggest. With no time for any job other than rowing, their primary financial support comes from a performance-based government stipend, which really only covers the basics. Visiting family and taking vacations are rare occurrences - this past Christmas, the members of Team Canada opted not to go home for the holiday, instead staying in Victoria to continue their daily training.
The sacrifices will all be worth it, the rowers say, should they help Canada strike gold again in London. Canada enters the competition as decided underdogs to the Germans (three consecutive World Championships) and the host Britons, who have seen an influx of cash and resources in recent years.
But rowing insiders know it's foolish to count out a Mike Spracklen-coached team in Olympic competitions.
"(Spracklen) just takes the guys down to the core of their belief system, and he gets the most out of them that he possibly can," Callahan said. "That's why he's been able to produce so many Olympic medals, but in particular his success in the eight has been incredible."
Gibson, Crothers and McCabe are part of an ongoing tradition of Canadian rowers who have notched impressive careers into the Husky record books. There are several reasons for the strong pipeline of talent from the North to the Seattle area - the legacy of crew victories, the strong academics at Washington, the generally mild temperatures allowing for year-round rowing on multiple bodies of water.
It also doesn't hurt that Seattle is close to the Canadian national team training center in Victoria, making summer commuting for training that much easier.
"Rowing at Washington really is the ideal location for a Canadian rower looking to take the next step," Gibson said.
All three credit the Washington program as crucial in providing the foundation for their accomplishments on the national and international levels.
"UW taught me how train hard," McCabe said. "I thrived in the environment and felt myself getting substantially fitter. It was motivating and made me want to continually push harder.
"So many of the things that make the UW program successful are the same at the senior level," he added.
For example, small boat training is a staple for both Spracklen and Callahan. In Victoria the majority of training is in singles and pair boats, much like on Montlake where the better part of the fall and winter is spent training in pairs. This is designed to teach responsibility and technical ability on the water.
Both coaches also employ low-rate long pieces side by side, capping rate and rowing maximum power. This, McCabe noted, made him realize in both programs that rowing effective length is essential to success.
The level of competition is comparable, with all rowers striving for a spot in the 8+.
"If you have 16 guys who are as competitive with each other as they will be against California or Stanford or Harvard, then you're going to have a very good V8 and a very good JV8 by the time selection is over," Crothers said. "Similarly, if we have 12 guys trying to make the Canadian eight, you can bet when the summer rolls around we are going to have a very good four as well."
And like Callahan, Spracklen knows just the right motivational tools for that extra burst of energy.
"He will ask us sometimes if we think the Germans or Brits are pushing as hard as us," Crothers said. "Everyone seems to find a little something more in their legs then."