It has been 20 years since Mark Tewksbury stood on the top podium as a backstroke Olympic gold medalist, and in those 20 years the remembrance of the obsession, the hard work and the pain to be the best had faded.
It all came back to the Canadian Olympic Committee's chef de mission for the London Olympics as he watched a short film on kayak world champion and Olympic medalist Adam van Koeverden on Monday.
"I forgot how much you put into this," Tewksbury said, 80 days before the opening ceremony in London. The kayak spot with van Koeverden is one of seven dramatic short films from the COC's "Give your everything" series. It's designed to brand athletes of the Canadian team as relentless in their pursuit of excellence and to make them known as personalities for the Canadian public. The series of short films will show up on Canadian TV and on the website Olympic.ca.
"The Olympics is every four years, but it's every day for us," van Koeverden said. Canadians know him as a flag bearer and medal winner, but they don't see him clambering into his kayak in early, rimy mornings, fingers freezing. "That film's a good indication of what I do every day when I get out on the water, pound at it for 90 minutes, eat, go to the gym. ... It's my routine. People ask 'when are you going to the Olympics?' Not for 79 days but there is so much to do between now and then."
The 30-year-old Oakville, Ont., kayak star says to be a top athlete means putting your body through as much as it can tolerate "repeatedly and sustainably so that you come back stronger, fitter and more skilled. I welcome the pain and the discomfort as an indication that I'm going really fast and pushing really hard."
Van Koeverden has won 22 World Cup gold medals and captured the overall World Cup title every year from 2004 through 2007. In 2007 he went undefeated on the World Cup circuit and earned another five World Cup victories in 2008 during Olympic preparation.
"The video itself is cool because it will get some attention and generate some interest. ... And I hope kids are inspired by it to try new sports. In Canada, there's obvious opportunities for a handful of sports ... but if you want to do some of the fringe sports, like rowing, diving even swimming, you have to live in the right city in some cases and have access to the right coaching.
"I'd love to see young Canadians interested in more than just hockey. One of the reasons we don't have more [depth]is that we lose 80 per cent of our talent to minor hockey right away. And if you don't become a great hockey player right away [you]go get a job."
Anonymity is the way of life for most amateurs. He never started paddling for fame. Even van Koeverden, who has three Olympic medals, says he never gets stopped or mauled as a famous person. He was out paddling yesterday morning, when members of the Toronto FC were running nearby, and says that they likely didn't know he was a serious athlete.
He said the 2012 Olympic squad would be polarized between veteran athletes and youngsters and the old hands could mentor the young. "I know what it's like going into an Olympics as a kid and now I know what it's like going in as an adult with some experience behind me.
"There's a young athlete from my canoe club [Aaron Rublee of Kamloops, B.C.]who started the sport really late but stormed on to the scene and won the Olympic trials [in C-1, 200 metres].." Rublee, if he wins one more race, could wind up going to London.
"He's the archetypal rookie. He's been to a couple of world championships... He's fast and he knows it. A lot of these kids are not rookies to their sport. So don't act like a rookie or think like a rookie or an underdog. This whole concept of going to your first Olympics to get some experience... obviously I don't feel that's necessary, because I went and I won [his first of three Olympic medals]at my first one..."
Being obsessive about the sport to be the best in the world can discipline an athlete, not warp him, van Koeverden says. An athlete suffers the same ups and downs as everyone else, he said.
"If I'm not getting up every morning and going as hard as I can out on the water, I'm a crappy kayaker," he said. "If you want to be good at what you do it requires dedication and devotion."
"Amateur sport is healthy. There's a long-standing debate about whether an athlete can re-enter society as well-rounded individuals. I will argue that absolutely, yes, we do. We've got mentors like Mark Tewksbury and Marnie McBean... and one of my mentors, Renn Crichlow, is an orthopedic surgeon.
"We are healthy people, mentally, physically and otherwise. We deal with the same things in life that everyone else does – even Clara Hughes with [the anti-depression health initiative]the Let's Talk program."