Mark de Jonge had thought about putting his kayak in storage many times since 2008, when he failed to make the team that paddled in the Beijing Olympics.
He had nagging injuries, a university degree he wanted to finish, and, later an engineering job in Halifax that he didn't want to lose. Most of all, he had doubts about his ability to improve his game to the point he could win the 500-metre and 1000-metre events. De Jonge was a sprinter, not an endurance man. "In late 2008, I realized I just didn't have four more years," he said.
A year later, Olympics announced that a 200-metre kayak sprint race would make its debut at London 2012, replacing the 500-metre event. That meant de Jonge wouldn't have to compete with world-class kayaking torpedoes like Oakville, Ont.'s Adam van Koeverden. About a year later, the decision was made: He would train for he new, and pleasingly short, Olympic race.
"I felt useful again," he said Saturday, after the race, his bronze medal around his neck and a big Canadian flag draped around his shoulders.
"In the 200, I am so much better suited to that," he said. "I knew that I had a future finally."
On a warm, sunny Saturday morning on the padding lake at Eton Dorney, de Jonge's decision paid off. He won bronze in a hard-fought race that handed gold to Britain's Ed McKeever and silver to Saul Rivero Craviotto of Spain.
The 200-metre sprint is a blur of arms rotating like wind turbines – up to 180 strokes a minute. The boats move so quickly, and the top paddlers are so evenly matched, that it's often impossible to tell who crosses the line first or second. In fact de Jonge trailed the gold medalist by only four-tenths of a second and would have taken silver if he was a little more than one-tenth of a second quicker. This is blink-of-the-eye competition.
"I ended up dying a little at the end, but that was to be expected when you go all out," he said, admitting that he had idea who had crossed the finish line first while he was racing.
De Jonge's medal is the third for the Canadian kayak and canoe team. Van Koeverden took silver in 1000-metre kayak race and his teammate Mark Oldershaw took bronze in the 1000-metre canoe event. The results are more or less what the Canadians expected. If the silvers in the men's and women's eight rowing events are included, Canada's medal tally at Eton Dorney rises to five, an impressive showing.
Even though de Jong was racing well this year, his appearance at the London Games was in jeopardy until only a few weeks ago. That's because he dropped a training weight on his left hand in April, breaking his index finger, his main pulling finger. "That was pretty hard for me," he said. "It was a freak accident."
But the rehab went well and he found himself back in fighting form. De Jonge said he "made the right decision" about returning to paddling.
"I am so happy to get on the podium," he said. "It's the highest level of competition that you can imagine here. Just to be among the top three is really special."
De Jonge plans to return to work at Stantec, an architecture and design engineering firm in Halifax, where he has been on leave of absence for a year and a half.
He's not saying whether he's going to hang up his paddle for good. "If I didn't want to paddle any more, I would know it, and I don't want to say that yet."
De Jonge's was the most successful performance on the water among the Canadians on Saturday. In the double kayak sprint, Ryan Cochrane and Hugues Fournel placed seventh in the medal race, one they were not expected to win. The race was won by Russia.