When the Canadian men’s rowing eights’ storybook ending at the 2004 Athens Olympics didn’t happen, it felt a little like getting dumped. Burned. Putting your heart and soul into a relationship, then being slapped with an abrupt “it’s over.”

Reigning world champions and undefeated for two years, the men went in as gold-medal favourites. A first-heat loss to the Americans rattled the team and then a fifth-place finish in the final would haunt and drive the holdovers for four more years. The eventual gold medal won by the 2008 Canadian Olympic Men’s Rowing Eights in Beijing was forged over that searing disappointment at Athens.

The ‘08 edition came from across Canada, but had a distinct BC flavour. Captain Kyle Hamilton of Richmond, Adam Kreek of London, Ontario, Ben Rutledge of Cranbrook, Kevin Light of Sidney, and coxswain Brian Price of Belleville, Ontario returned from the Athens eight. Saskatoon’s Jake Wetzel was a silver-medallist in the Athens four. Dominic Seiterle of Victoria returned after a seven-year hiatus, having last rowed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Malcolm Howard of Victoria and Andrew Byrnes of Toronto were the only Olympic rookies. Mike Spracklen, a former British rower considered perhaps the sport’s foremost coach, having guided successful British and American national teams, as well as BC Sports Hall of Famer Silken Laumann, lived near the team’s training base just outside Victoria.

Fitting that Tylenol was the team’s sponsor. They came to know pain in all its forms—learning to embrace it, as Kreek put it—in those chilling, seemingly never-ending workouts on Elk Lake. For 330-odd days a year, they’d push through three daily workouts totalling five hours on the water. The only days off the water were if Elk Lake—or hell—froze over.

The demands and sacrifices were incredible. Under-perform and twenty men were clamouring to fill your seat. Little time or energy remained for work, school, or family. As carded athletes, each survived on a meagre $18,000 of government support. Much went to the 6000 daily calories needed to refuel their worn-out bodies. As Rutledge summed up, “You lived simply. You just had to.”

For two years leading up to Beijing, the boat’s nine-man composition remained unchanged, almost unheard of in elite rowing circles. Spares regularly move in or out to combat complacency and squeeze velocity out of nine men in a carbon-fibre shell. It says something about the team’s discipline and heart to remain motivated, fast, and successful with the same group for such an extended period. In that two-year span, they didn’t lose a race, entering Beijing as reigning world champions.

In the team’s opening heat at Beijing’s Shunyi Olympic rowing park, the men cruised to a seven-second victory, advancing straight to the final. By 500m of the final, the Canadians were 2½ seats ahead of the British, powerfully thrusting their shell’s bow clear out of the water with every stroke. Still in the lead at 1500m although tiring, screaming Canadian supporters in the stands provided a boost. Price had calmly updated on their position throughout, but with metres remaining, cast his arms skyward yelling: “Five more strokes to Olympic gold!” They sliced the line in a time of five minutes 23.89 seconds, just over a second ahead of the British and Americans.

Wild celebrations in the boat, in the stands, and on the podium followed. Kreek, blocked by paranoid Chinese officials, ran to give flowers to his wife, while others hurled theirs in the air like papers tossed by children on the last day of school. Their lack of decorum was excusable after, for some, eight years of backbreaking effort for this one glorious moment. “Gold medals are awarded in the summer, but they’re earned in the winter,” Hamilton told reporters. “That was four years of hard winters.”

In those years of freezing workouts in snow, rain, wind, and waves, busting through walls of mental and physical exhaustion, an unwavering bond as tight as family was cast. It’s not so much the gold medals themselves that matter, but the journey to get there that they represent. Wherever they go from here, “the brotherhood of Elk Lake” will remain long after the gleam of gold fades.

Team Members:
Andrew Byrnes (3), Kyle Hamilton (stroke), Malcolm Howard (5), Adam Kreek (7), Kevin Light (bow), Brian Price (cox), Ben Rutledge (2), Dominic Seiterle (6), Mike Spracklen (coach), Jake Wetzel (4).

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.