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Silken Laumann

January 20, 2014 by Speakers' Spotlight

Silken Laumann: Unsinkable

Just ten weeks before the 1992 Olympic Games, Silken Laumann, the reigning world champion in single sculls rowing, suffered a brutal accident that left her right leg shattered and useless. Doctors doubted that she would ever row competitively again. But twenty-seven days, five operations and countless hours of grueling rehabilitation later, Silken was back in her racing shell, ready to pursue her dream. When the starter’s pistol rang out , she made the greatest comeback in Canadian sports history, rowing to a bronze-medal finish while the world watched, captivated by her remarkable story. Now, Silken bravely shines a spotlight on all the obstacles she has encountered—and overcome—in Unsinkable, a memoir that reveals not only new insights into her athletic success and triumph over physical adversity, but also the intense personal challenges of her past and the fierce determination she applies to living a bold, loving and successful life today. In a personal interview with The Toronto Star, Silken comes forward with her courageous story:

When Silken Laumann propelled her scull across the finish line to win a bronze medal in rowing at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Canadians celebrated her courage with overwhelming pride, and not a little awe.

Ten weeks before, Laumann had shattered her right ankle and shredded her calf muscles when the German men pair’s boat collided with her own during her warm-up for the World Cup in Essen, Germany. Against all medical advice, and before she could even walk, the Mississauga, Ont., rower got back on the water. With sheer willpower, through pain that would have felled most other human beings, she drove herself to win a bronze medal.

As incredible as that feat was — Laumann calls it a miracle — it likely took even more courage to write Unsinkable. In the book, she describes the terror she felt and the verbal and physical abuse she experienced at the hands of her troubled and erratic mother, abuse that caused her feelings of unworthiness she battles to this day. To write such a memoir while her parents and siblings are still alive is brave, and it is clear she did not write with any desire to hurt. But their reaction may also have held Laumann back from fully acknowledging her father’s lack of protection, and the extent of the abuse, which she terms “a difficult childhood.”

“I still fear breaking the lock on our family’s dark secrets,” Laumann acknowledges in the book. “What I fear even more is not doing so.”

During Laumann’s long career as a motivational speaker, after retiring from rowing, she began to realize she was not telling her audiences the whole truth about why she could endure the hardships of Olympic-level training, and how she could come back from her injury. Acknowledging the source of that resilience gave birth to this book.

Laumann is also strikingly honest in Unsinkable about her struggles with depression and anxiety, and with parenting two children with special needs; her daughter, Katie, who has Attention Deficit Disorder, and her partner David Patchell-Evans’ daughter Kilee, who is severely autistic. It is refreshing to have a parent write openly about the frustration, physical fear, exhaustion and hopelessness that can accompany caring for a child with these challenges. Like Ian Brown’s book about his severely disabled son, The Boy in the Moon, acknowledging that reality will help other parents even more than Laumann’s equally open descriptions of the sudden joy, affection and hope that caring for Kilee inspires.

Laumann tackles other important issues in Unsinkable, including body image, and her teenage anorexia. The book’s remarkable cover photo is a testament to how far she has come in accepting herself. The photograph reveals Laumann’s powerful body, her injured right calf clearly visible, her bare feet resting beside her oars.

Laumann also rejects the stigma aligned against mental illness; the Boys’ Club atmosphere of the International Olympic Committee, and the lack of respect and disproportionate funding given to women’s sport and Olympic endeavours. She is a clear thinker, and a strong and respected voice on all of these issues, particularly since she filters them through her own experience.

Written with the help of Toronto author Sylvia Fraser, Unsinkable is a fast and compelling read. In a few places, I wish an editor had allowed Laumann’s experiences to speak for themselves, with less of the self-help language surrounding them, such as her thoughts on body image. “If each of us spoke to our reflections in the language of sweetness and self-love, we would know that we are perfect just the way we are,” she writes. At the same time, in her blog Laumann joins the crusade against childhood obesity that can’t help but make many girls feel unloved. Despite that dichotomy, Unsinkable is a moving and fearless memoir by a great Canadian athlete, advocate and role model.

Laura Eggertson/Toronto Star/January. 2014