In a rowing career spanning fifteen years, Silken Laumann transcended the sport to become one of Canada’s most recognizable athletes.

Silken grew up in Mississauga, Ontario and came to local sporting prominence as a runner. Her sister Daniele encouraged Silken to switch to rowing and in 1983 she was named to the national team. A year later at the Los Angeles Olympics, Silken and Daniele won a bronze medal in the double sculls event. However, Silken suffered from a recurring back problem after the Olympics and considered retirement.

Through a combination of physiotherapy and dedicated training Silken recovered to win gold in the single sculls event at the 1987 Pan American Games. In 1990 she moved to Victoria and began training under coach Mike Spracklen with the Canadian men’s national team. A year later she won the single sculls at the world championships and became the gold medal favourite for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Everything was going according to plan until disaster struck in warm-ups at a World Cup regatta in May 1992 in Essen, Germany. Silken was out on the water in the chaotic and poorly organized warm-up area amidst dozens of other boats going every which way, everyone trying to focus on pulling some hard strokes to limber up, while also keeping their heads on a swivel for other boats nearby. She described what happened next in her 2014 book Unsinkable:

“I had taken twelve strokes, aggressively and fluidly, when I heard a whirr like a strong wind blowing across my riggers, followed by a slight delay as my mind grasped its meaning. The German men’s pair came crashing into the side of my Stampfli [shell] with a crushing sound, fierce and screeching and devastatingly violent… Colin van Ettingshausen’s face was white and his eyes wide as he stared at my right leg. I hadn’t thought to check myself for injury, but now I stared, too: it was torn open… Flesh, bone, blood, all mangled together—it seemed unrecognizable as my leg.”

Silken was rushed to the hospital where she underwent emergency surgery to save her leg. There was significant risk of infection as splinters from Silken’s shattered shell had been driven into her calf muscle. The surgery went well, and doctors were optimistic that Silken would be able to walk again albeit with a limp for the rest of her life.

The Olympics, just 10 weeks away in late July, initially weren’t even a consideration—to everyone except Silken. Everyday as she lay in her hospital bed recovering from the latest procedure on her leg, she began visualizing that it was healing and strong.

“One crazy thing became increasingly clear: I wasn’t wanting to heal my leg just to be healthy again,” she said. “I intended to row and win a medal in Barcelona, despite my lower leg being a huge open wound, with dead tissue still to be removed to decrease the risk of infection, and with a skin graft yet to come.”

Just three days after the accident, Silken tied two rubber Thera-Bands to the end of her bed and began pulling on them as if they were oars. She flew home to Victoria where further procedures and physio continued at Royal Jubilee Hospital. She astounded doctors and everyone who came to visit her with her laser focus and determination.

Twenty-three days after her accident, getting around in a wheelchair and her right leg in a prosthesis, she was taken to the dock at Elk Lake to try rowing again. Barely able to stand due to the pain but sitting in her scull on the water Silken was back in her element and she zipped joyfully all over the lake to everyone’s amazement. A timed 2000m row a few days later 75 seconds slower than normal revealed how much conditioning she had lost in the past few weeks though. Regardless, she continued to put the work in and spurred on by constant encouragement from her teammates by phone and mail, she improved regaining fitness and strength. By the end of June, she had rejoined Spracklen and the men’s national team training in France and was rattling off 300km training weeks courageously trying to claw back all the fitness and strength she’d lost since the crash.

At that point, Silken’s accident and recovery had been detailed in the media from coast-to-coast, a running national story. The question became not whether the defending world single sculls champion could compete at the Olympics, but how she would do.

At the Olympic rowing regatta held on Lake of Banyoles, all eyes were on Silken. It was an absolute miracle that she had willed herself to even be competing this soon after her horrific accident in May.

“I was quite a spectacle…leaning on my cane as I made my way through the boat area, my right leg bandaged,” she recalled in Unsinkable.

A second place finish in her opening heat helped build some confidence and then she rowed a spectacular semifinal, winning the race.

In the final, Silken burst from the gates fast and stroking smoothly. For the first 500m, it felt like any other race, but then she noticed the toll the accident, the resulting injury, and everything else had taken on her.

“My strokes felt less lively and more laboured, and I was struggling for oxygen—a feeling unfamiliar to me, since aerobic fitness was usually my strong suit.”

She settled in for the fight of her life and was holding on in third place. By the halfway mark, Elisabeta Lipă of Romania had built a commanding two-length lead with Annelies Bredael of Belgium following in second. Silken was in third, 3.74sec behind Lipă and 0.33sec behind Bredael.

With 500m to go, Silken was still in third but clearly struggling. The American Anne Marden, who had beaten Silken in the opening heat, was now even with her and looking strong. Shortly after, Marden pulled ahead of Silken who dropped to fourth. Most everyone watching likely conceded it had been a gallant, extraordinary effort by the Canadian, but asking just a little too much at this level of competition. Somehow that thought never entered Silken’s mind.

“[Marden] pulled out and I think at that point I thought that maybe I’d lost contact with her and I looked and realized that we were still very close,” she said to the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame upon her induction in 2004. “I just suddenly thought, ‘I’m not coming in fourth!’ Fourth is the worst position, to just miss a medal.”

Something truly remarkable then took place.

“I could hear the crowd roar—crazy amounts of noise for a rowing race, amplified by the enthusiastic Canadians filling the floating grandstands,” Silken recalled. “I had nothing left. I was seizing up. My head was foggy, but I was not going to come in fourth. At that moment, some force took hold of my oars. I lifted my rate—one, two, three strokes more a minute. My body had been trained for this sprint, and now a force of power, love, and grace drove my boat ahead of Anne’s and over the finish line. I was so confused with exhaustion and my body’s screaming from lactic acid, I didn’t know where I’d finished. When I read the scoreboard…I breathed a sigh of relief. Not elation, not a triumphant fist-in-the-air punch, just relief and exhaustion, and an amazing, encompassing feeling of completion. I had done it.”

Somehow the still-injured Silken Laumann had willed herself back into the bronze medal position finishing in 7min 28.85sec behind Lipă and Bredael. It stands as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the Olympics. Certainly the greatest in Canadian history.

“You saw Silken drop into fourth place and show tremendous determination to come back,” coach Spracklen told Michael Farber of the Montreal Gazette. “That’s an extremely hard thing to do. She wanted to win very badly to have gone through that situation. In the last 500 [meters] to lose your place and regain it, that just doesn’t happen. You’ve got to be someone very special to do that.”

Canadian teammate Kay Worthington went even further calling her performance “inhuman.”

Silken’s bronze medal became front page news in every city across Canada and in headlines around the world. She was suddenly a household name from coast-to-coast and largely remains so today. Although there were many gold and silver medalists to choose from in Barcelona to carry the Canadian flag at the Games Closing Ceremony, the honour of having Silken do it seemed the only appropriate choice.

After taking a year off to recover from her injuries, Laumann resumed rowing, finishing second at the 1995 World Championships. A year later she competed in her fourth Olympics and won a silver medal at the Atlanta Games.

Among her many achievements Laumann has been awarded the 1991 Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top athlete, the Canadian Press female athlete-of-the-year award in 1991 and 1992, the Meritorious Service Cross in 1994 and was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1998. Much of her time in retirement has been spent as a professional motivational speaker and championing a number of charitable activities.

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

For a more in-depth look at performances of Silken Laumann and her Canadian rowing teammates at the 1992 Olympics, please see the July 2022 Curator’s Corner feature article here: