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Κυριακή, 7 Οκτωβρίου 2012

No middle ground with rowing coach Mike Spracklen

No middle ground with rowing coach Mike Spracklen

Posted: Sunday, August 5, 2012 | 08:28 AM


Categories: Olympics2012

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Canadian rowing coach Mike Spracklen after his men's eight won a silver medal at the London Olympics. (Kevin Light/CBCSports.ca) Canadian rowing coach Mike Spracklen after his men's eight won a silver medal at the London Olympics. (Kevin Light/CBCSports.ca)

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Canada's rowing team had some success wining two silver medals, but didn't see as many strong performances as the team had hoped.

In the lead up to the Games, it was anything but smooth sailing.

A CBC investigation uncovered some athletes and top officials connected to the sport who are publicly sharing grievances - some longstanding - and speaking out about the tactics of one of the Canadian team's legendary coaches, Mike Spracklen.

They include rowing pair Scott Frandsen and David Calder who finished sixth in London after winning a silver medal at the Games in Beijing.

"I think there's a healthier approach to sport. I don't think that sport at an elite level at a high performance level has to be abusive," Calder says.

Biggest names in rowing

Spracklen has made a name for himself partially by pushing his athletes to extremes both physically and mentally to toughen them up for Olympic battle, a battle that he has often won.

He's led rowing crews from all over the world to about a dozen Olympic medals. That  includes a gold for the Canadian men's eight squad in Barcelona in 1992 and again in Beijing in 2008, with silver here in London.

To be this successful he admits to "getting on" an athlete to motivate them.

He tells them "If I don't push you, I think I'm not helping you. If I don't push somebody that could get onto the Olympic podium then I'm not doing my job ... "

But some wonder at what cost.

Brian Richardson was Rowing Canada's head coach at the 1996 Olympics where the team won six medals and he coached alongside Spracklen for the 2004 games in Athens.

"As a coach he is second to none if you want to win the gold medal ... [in the men's eight] there is probably no one better in the world to do that for you," Richardson says.

But he adds: "You have to be aware there will be a lot of destruction and fallout because of it."

He says Spracklen's tactics have had the Canadian team close to self-destructing over the years.

"He will do everything in his power to make that crew win which in many cases leaves him setting the crew us versus the rest. You know that sort [of] mentality - that sort of motivation. That the rest of Canada don't support us and we have to do this alone."

Athletes divided

Spracklen supporters, like Andrew Byrnes, who is a member of this year's men's eight team defends the tactics. Byrnes says most who've rowed under Spracklen since the early '90s in Canada believe he's done great things for rowing in this country.

mens8-220.jpgCanada's Brain Price, Will Crothers, Jeremiah Brown, Andrew Byrnes, Malcolm Howard, Conlin McCabe, Rob Gibson, Douglas Csima, and Gabriel Bergen pose with the silver medal they won for the men's rowing eight. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)
"I have complete faith that Mike knows what he is doing and is pushing us in the right ways," Byrnes said leading up to the Games.

And some credit him with pulling the team together to win the silver after a disastrous start in London.

In a blog posted after the silver medal, rowing legend Silken Laumann wrote that this was another example of why Spracklen is the best rowing coach in the world.

"Mike knows how to take the rawness of talent and give it form to reveal greatness," Laumann wrote.

But some current and former rowers and officials who spoke to CBC have a different point of view.

They allege that Spracklen grinds down athletes, plays favourites, trains in dangerous conditions, and verbally picks on rowers.

An unusual move

Tracy Cameron quit rowing and walked away from her Olympic spot just two months before these Games.

It was an unusual move by an athlete who had worked hard to come back from injury to earn her Olympic spot on the lightweight women's double team

At the time, Cameron blamed it on a lack of chemistry with her partner Lindsay Jennerich.

But she now tells CBC she was also disappointed and emotionally hurt by her coach, Mike Spracklen.

"I was shocked ... I felt like I was thrown under the bus," she says

After Cameron and her partner struggled at a pre-Olympic regatta this spring in Switzerland, the coach had Patricia Obee, the athlete Cameron had already beat out for the Olympic spot, back training with them.

And he pitted them against one another in training.

Cameron says she couldn't believe she was being asked to race for her Olympic seat again.

"I had already proven myself and by a substantial amount. It wasn't a close race."

Spracklen denies he was re-selecting for the Olympic spot - but then pauses.

"She may well have seen that yes - I can see that she would have thought that because if you're training with me and I can't keep up with you but the other person is - who would you want to partner.  If there are three of you and one of them is being left behind you wouldn't want to row with that person would you so it becomes self selecting."

She felt in the time she needed the support the most she didn't get it. Spracklen says he was only trying to do what was best for the team.

In the end, the double with Jennerich and Obee didn't get past the Olympic semifinals.

More transparency

Pairs rower Scott Frandsen would like people to reconsider Spracklen as a model coach.

He and his partner David Calder say they have been fighting for more transparency in who is picked for Olympic spots especially in the men's eight, one of the sport's marquee events.

"What we've wanted and all we've been fighting for the past couple of years is a level playing field.  All we want is for speed on water to dictate who's in what boat".

Brian Richardson says one of the examples that haunts him happened just before the Athens Olympics in 2004.

Rower Darren Barber was trying to make a comeback after taking time off from training to become a doctor.

He helped Canada win a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics.

At several pre Olympic events right before Athens, Barber was part of a men's eight crew that seemed unbeatable.

But Spracklen held a seat selection race to decide who was in the men's eight at the Olympics.

Frandsen says it left many of them shaking their heads.

"He wasn't the guy that Mike wanted in the eight. So Mike kept doing the seat race over and over again and Darren kept winning but Mike was going to continue to do that seat race until his guy won."

Coach surprised

Brian Richardson, the head coach at the time, was dumfounded too.

"I feel like I let Darren down a bit because I got a surprise, I didn't think it was an issue whether Darren was going to be in the boat or not, and suddenly he's out of the boat."

He says even worse, Spracklen didn't  give the news to Barber in person.

"The tragic side of that I thought, was that he never even spoke to Darren. This was a guy that won a Gold Medal for him [in 1992] and rowed his heart out, a terrific competitor, incredibly tough, a guy I have enormous respect for and he just cut him out."

Rowing Canada says picking a team isn't an exact science. Speed on the water is a major factor, but not the only one, for example there's also how the athlete fits into the team to help create a certain chemistry so the coach has to have some leeway to make his or her selections.

Frandsen, who used to be part of Spracklen's inner circle when he was in the men's eight at the 2004 Olympics, says Spracklen has a saying he likes to use: Ffriends come and go but Olympic medals last forever.

"There's a quote that I think really captures what's wrong with this philosophy and it's something like you can be a victor without having victims. You can stand tall without standing on top of people."

A culture of fearFrandsen's partner, Calder, won the world championship in the men's eight with Spracklen in 2003.

But Calder says when he had a family, the coach thought he had lost his focus and let everybody know.

"We were at a camp in BC.  The camp was coming to an end and some of the veterans on the team wanted to go back to Victoria," Calder recalls.

"And I stuck my neck out and said, 'listen guys we've been here for the week let's finish this off on a high note, let's push ourselves as hard as we can'. Mike didn't hear what I said and he just took that opportunity to say of course you would want to go home. You would want to go home to your family - In fact you should just go home ... you don't belong here,you belong at home with your family."

Calder says it was a tirade that lasted a full five minutes in front of the whole team.

"Nobody on that team said anything, everybody stuck their head down because there's that environment of fear -  the culture of fear that if you stick your neck out then you're the next person on the chopping block."

Dan Casaca at one point thought he might be rowing at the Games in London.

But in November the rower, who at one time was considered one of team's bright young prospects, retired and walked away from his Olympic dream.

He says he couldn't take any more of what he says had become a barrage of negative comments directed his way from Spracklen.

"I was the whipping boy," he says and adds if this was Spracklen's way to motivate him it had the opposite effect.

No matter what he did, he says he was told he wasn't good enough, he was lazy.  This happened in front of the whole team.

"Telling them I was no good...I didn't care about anything, that's verbal abuse. That's the definition of verbal abuse. Did I take it like that at time? No. Do I see that it is now? - Yes."

Casaca says he felt humiliated and even started to believe he wasn't any good after he heard it so often.

He felt unfairly singled out.

frandsen-220.jpgCanada's Scott Frandsen at the 2012 Summer Olympics. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Two years ago, Scott Frandsen and David Calder led an internal mutiny against Spracklen.

"Once you've been around for couple of years, you see it over and over again at some point you say enough is enough," Frandsen says.

The pair demanded a shakeup from the sport's governing body.

Rowing Canada conducted an internal investigation and interviewed the members of the men's national team and some others connected to the sport. The results were never made public.

Brian Richardson the former head coach says Rowing Canada faced a dilemma.

Record of success

"Because he has a record, a success record. ... it does sound like the athletes are  just complaining because they did not get selected. But I think there's enough examples now over the last 10 years."

Richardson adds, "Once they win the gold medal you just feel like [you] can't say anything because the end justifies [the] means and of course he won in '92...he's gone ahead done it again in 2008.  It's [a] tough one for Rowing Canada to step up. How do you sack a dual gold medal coach?"

After its investigation, Rowing Canada did split the men's heavyweight team among several coaches with Spracklen continuing to coach his men's eight and a few other squads.

Spracklen openly criticized that move in London and said it wasn't a good strategy to win medals.

He calls the past couple of years difficult.

Rejects criticism

And feels as if his boss, Rowing Canada, has lost confidence in him despite all his achievements.

And he says the criticisms aren't justified.

"If I coach an eight, or whatever boat I'm coaching, of the 20 or 30 people I have there's only eight  that can get into those seats and so you've immediately got 22 enemies and those people are the people that complain.  They will attack me with you're unfair, you cheat- your training program is too hard, we can't train that hard and that's where a lot of that dissension   comes from. Most of dissension comes from athletes that have not made the standard and complain and it's unfortunate that certain people take notice of those complaints."

Rowing Canada's high performance Peter Cookson denies they've lost confidence in Spracklen.

He says he's heard the complaints but doesn't believe Spracklen has crossed the line into being abusive.

"Mike always operates professionally and tries to get the best out of people."

The divisions amongst team members became quite apparent in the lead up to London.

Some don't speak to one another.

On three different occasions in the last year, Frandsen and his partner Calder say they discovered small holes punctured into the sides of their boat - they worried it might have been sabotage.

"We don't know who did it. It's absurd it's ridiculous," Calder says.

Extra security

Last December the association wrote an email to the athletes at the Victoria Training Centre,

In the email, obtained by CBC, Rowing Canada officials say they're not sure if the holes were accidental or intentional, but go on to say they're installing security cameras in the boathouse to make sure it doesn't happen again.

And there were cameras and patrols for the team in London.

The 74-year-old Spracklen has become a lightning rod for both his critics and his supporters.

He's led Canada to some of its most memorable Olympic moments in rowing.

But some, like Brian Richardson, think this will be his last.

"Rowing Canada has erred on the side of failing to act, but I think they will now after these Olympics are over."

Rowing Canada has confirmed it is conducting a review of its entire rowing program from operations to coaching.

Peter Cookson says the goal is to go from having a good team to a great team.

As Spracklen looked out over his training site before the games on Elk Lake in Victoria, he told CBC he isn't planning on walking away from the sport he's so passionate about anytime soon.

"Rowing is my life and I will continue until I keel over and fall into the lake. And it may not be this lake. The way things are going it could well be a lake somewhere else"

End

1 σχόλιο:

  1. όλη αυτή η συζήτηση με τον Spracklen μου θυμίζει και λίγο τα δικά μας. Πόσες φορές την έχω ακούσει και εδώ στην Ελλάδα...

    ΑπάντησηΔιαγραφή