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The Globe and Mail

Canadian rowing coach eyes London Olympics

(L-R) Canada's Kevin Light, Ben Rutledge, Jake Wetzel, Malcolm Howard, Dominic Seiterle, Adam Kreek, Kyle Hamilton and Brian Price compete in the men's eight at the Shunyi Rowing and Canoeing Park during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in Beijing on August 11, 2008. The rowing heats and finals will all be staged in mid-afternoon with the temperature topping 30 Celsius, combined with 75 percent humidity.


With a stiff upper lip, a proper tongue and a schoolmaster's demeanour, Rowing Canada patriarch Mike Spracklen is as British as they come.

But this 73-year-old coach has no love for the motherland's storied rowing program, not after being unceremoniously dumped 10 years ago for only winning a silver medal at the Sydney Games, and because a few squeaky wheels engineered his ousting in the political backrooms. After all their history together, Spracklen would like nothing more than if Canadian boats beat the stuffing out of the well-heeled Brits when London's Olympic regatta begins two years from Wednesday.

"There are times when I feel like I shouldn't be coaching against my own countrymen, but I regard myself as Canadian now and have pushed those feeling aside," Spracklen said, adding that he and wife Annie, both permanent residents, intend on applying for Canadian citizenship. "I have many friends there, and my extradition from British rowing was a result of a few women who have since left the sport."

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Spracklen, raised in Marlow, England, is a legend in the rowing community, a coach who forged his reputation with four medals by British crews at three different Olympics between 1976 and 1988. He moved on to Canada and the United States after doing his best for Queen and country, but returned home in 1997 because Great Britain had never won an Olympic medal in women's rowing, and Spracklen felt that a worthwhile project.

In his first two years, Spracklen's crews won five world championship medals, but their damning feedback to British Rowing officials led to his dismissal following the 2000 Games.

"I found they didn't like training, and that's why they weren't very good," Spracklen said of the women's program he inherited, adding he has since heard that formerly disgruntled pupils have come to appreciate his unyielding ways. "They wrote nasty letters to say I didn't help them … so British Rowing asked me not to carry on."

In fact, Spracklen's replacement was arranged before the Sydney Games even began, and while he says the relationship has since been repaired, he admits that the London Olympics are extra motivating because they provide an opportunity to beat the Brits on home water.

"It's similar to the Brett Hull situation, where you feel a little bit slighted by one country and your allegiance changes 180 degrees," said Kevin Light, a gold medalist at the 2008 Olympics, said of his coach. "He's already proven how great a coach he is. He doesn't need any more results. It's almost like you're going home to Henley and doing it in front of your people."

In the buildup to London, Spracklen has taken over coaching Canada's men's lightweight program, which trains alongside the heavyweights at Elk Lake, near Victoria. The coach said the lightweights needed his help, but concedes that foreign boats will be in tough two years from now because the Brits are pouring money into their program, hoping to impress the home fans.

Spracklen said the money, in some cases £25,000 ($40,000) per athlete annually, allows experienced rowers to remain in the British program and not have to worry about working outside of the sport. It's a luxury that many Canadian rowers do not have, and nowhere is that more evident than the eight-boat.

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Canada won the glamour event of the 2008 Beijing regatta in dominant fashion, as the eights seized control of their race within the first 500 metres, and cruised to gold medals. But the boat has just one returning member, Andrew Byrnes, meaning Spracklen is rebuilding and cautious about its potential.

The eights finished fourth at a recent World Cup in Switzerland, but Spracklen says it will take time because he's dealing with athletes who need seasoning, not old hands like in the last Olympics.

Four of the eight members of the golden boat have stopped rowing competitively. Dominic Seiterle is training twice a week, and contemplating a comeback.

Malcolm Howard, perhaps the country's best rower, is now in a single and Spracklen says he will be left to pursue individual glory so long as he continues to post results.

Light is dealing with blood clots in his legs. He only returned to training three weeks ago, and won't be back in the eight for the remainder of this season, Spracklen said.

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