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Canada Day: A Unique Relationship With Our Flag

Three-Time Olympic Gold Medalist and Athlete Mentor for the Canadian Olympic Team, Marnie McBean is one of Canada’s most decorated Olympians and–we are thrilled to announce–has just been appointed to the Order of Canada for her achievements in rowing and for her mentorship of athletes, girls, and women. As the Olympic Team Athlete Mentor, McBean writes a regular email to the Olympians, and was kind enough to share her most recent one with us, aptly themed around what Canada and the Canadian Flag mean to her:

The idea of representing and competing for tens of millions of Canadians at the Olympic Games can be daunting. If you feel 35 million people are expectantly watching you, then you have an incredible crowd to be concerned with and that can be distracting and overwhelming. How do you make that many people fade to the background so that you can focus on your Olympic task? The most complex tasks are achieved by breaking them down into doable ‘bits’ and managing the expectations of a nation is no different. Canada Day Celebrations remind me of a technique that I used to manage this incredible audience and it involves a unique relationship that we, as Olympians, can have with our flag.

I first recognized the power of our flag as I walked into the Opening Ceremony at the 1992 Olympic Games. Montjuic Stadium in Barcelona was colourfully packed with almost 70,000 cheering people waving flags from over 200 hundred nations and it was crystal clear to me, and all the other athletes who marched in, exactly which flags were Canadian. With its bright red borders, clean white centre and bold red maple leaf, it is beautiful, powerful and distinct. Even at a distance, there is no confusion of which combination of blue, white and red, or red white and blue – or is that green, or black? four stars or six?

After marching into that stadium, I developed a completely unique relationship with our flag. The Canadian flag represents millions but when I look at it, I see it as a lone sentry; it has my back, it stands on guard for me. When my mind raced with possibilities, I would ‘talk’ to it – sharing my ambitions and fears – I found its constant strength to be peaceful and comforting; it kept me calm when I needed most to be calm. When I won my first Olympic gold medal, I realized that my relationship with the flag was incredibly personal. To this day, when I see the flag I acknowledge it as a friend who continues to ‘stand’ by my side through thick and thin. I love the strength of our flag, I am so proud to be Canadian.

I always knew that I was Canadian – but I’m not sure that I had felt it; like many Canadians I think I took it for granted. Those Olympics weren’t the first time that I had represented Canada; I had proudly worn red and white at Jr. and Sr. World Championships – but there was something profoundly different about wearing our colours at the Olympics. That they are such a massive global event allowed me to connect to what it feels like, deep down to be a Canadian; to know that my home is a county that is full of so much that is extraordinary. Since that moment I have been from sea to sea to arctic sea and everything that I experience, everyone that I meet and all the things that I learn that Canadians do reinforce my pride. I am so lucky to be Canadian.

But why is this relationship to the flag, which is available to everyone, unique for Olympians? The branding, that once was so brilliantly carried by our Great War soldiers, is now carried by us. Olympic sport brings Canadians together to celebrate simply being Canadian like nothing else. For what other endeavour do all Canadians jump on their sofas, excitedly screaming at their TV sets, or gather in town squares proudly wearing our national colours all waving the same flag? I’m proud of our writers, artists, and scientists but I’ve never seen a crowd celebrating with joyous tears and high fives because of a new novel, CD release or new discovery. Even NHL hockey divides us – but Olympic hockey players and all the other athletes who wear the red maple leaf unite us as one nation. I’ve had people approach me and proudly tell me that cheering for me at the Olympics was the first time that they got to celebrate being new Canadians. Olympic athletes carry the flag like no one else. (That’s cool stuff!) I am so honoured to be a Canadian.

My technique for managing the expectations of millions was to keep it simple; focus on the flag – not the people. Our glorious flag represents you and the millions of extraordinary Canadians behind it want nothing more than to “see thee rise”. As you prepare for the upcoming season, the selection, qualification and the Sochi Winter Olympics take our flag –and all of the strength behind it—with you. If it’s not on your sleeve, or chest or helmet – know that it’s part of your support team, it’s part of who you are.

 By Marnie McBean