Champion kayaker Adam van Koeverden first captured the world’s attention at the 2004 Olympic Games, where he was a double medalist with gold and bronze victories. Since then, he has continued to dominate the sport, taking silver at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, earning two World Championship titles in 2007 and 2011, and being named “Canada’s Athlete of the Year” in 2012. In Rio this week, after a disappointed semi-final race, Adam bounced back to take a first place finish in the B-Finals, with a time that bested the Final’s silver medalist’s. In this personal essay below, Adam reflects on Rio, on his career, and speculates on what might be next for him, now that his last Olympics are behind him:
Not all gifts come in shiny packages, and not every accomplishment is rewarded with a medal. This week represented something totally unique to my kayaking career, an experience that is so fresh that I still don’t know exactly what to make of it.
Monday, I had a bad race in my K1 1,000 semifinal. I hesitated, and while I’ll never know if it was that first stroke that cost me my last chance at an Olympic podium appearance, I know that it didn’t help. The semis were harder than ever this year. Our K1 1,000 field is the deepest it’s ever been and we can all be proud of that.
It wasn’t until Tuesday morning, the day of my B final that I thought of it as more than just a consolation race. I warmed up casually, didn’t bring sandals to wear to the dock, or even a shirt to warm up in. When I left the hotel, I wasn’t sure I’d even do a pre-warm up paddle.
With about a minute to start I looked down my lane, 1,000 metres of flat blue water with the Hill of Two Brothers just off to the right. I reconsidered my intention, and thought about how this was probably going to be the last time I got to race at the Olympic Games. I decided that my relegation to the B final was actually a great opportunity. A gift, even.
I had a chance to perform my event, in front of an Olympic audience, on this Olympic racecourse, with world-class opponents for no reason but out of love.
No expectations, no pressure
It could be the purest race I’ve ever completed. I had no expectations. No pressure from myself or anyone else. There would be no medal ceremony, no flags or anthems. I was going to paddle 1,000 metres because I love to. Because it’s what I do and who I am and I’ve practiced for 20 years and I prepared the best I ever have.
I stole my moment back from that disappointing semifinal. I took my first stroke, crisp and well timed, put my shoulders down, applied pressure to my footrest, cranked it back and drove my boat forward 350 times with my paddle.
I went through the 500m mark and I relaxed. I saw the 200m mark go by and I felt no pain. I increased my stroke rate and pushed hard to the finish line without any discomfort. I won, 9th place. It was perfect, and painless and an absolute pleasure.
After the A final results came down, I heard that I had the second fastest time of the day. Good enough for silver had I been in the A final.
Some people might expect me to be disappointed or have some regrets, but I understand racing. I know that it isn’t as simple as a time on a piece of paper. There is strategy and nerves and wind and a hundred other things. I also know that you need to earn a spot in the final and that I didn’t.
I earned a chance to perform under virtually no pressure, and I believe that helped me a lot. I also don’t feel that a medal would validate my preparation or my performance any more than my strokes did today. I’m content knowing that I did my best, and it was pretty good.
I have zero regrets. I wouldn’t change a thing about my 2016 Olympic experience. I was given the gift of a lifetime. It came wrapped in ugly brown paper without a ribbon, and it was difficult to even see it as a gift at first. But that’s what I’m leaving with, having embraced the chance to race the purest 1,000 of my career without any tangible reward. None except for a few really solid handshakes from men and women with strong, battle hardened hands from millions of hard strokes. Those individuals make up our paddling community.
Our family of driven, talented brothers and sisters are an awe inspiring bunch to say the very least. The friends I’ve met through my years as a paddler are absolutely the greatest reward that this journey has provided me with. Having a friend in almost every country in the world is an amazing thing, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
‘Sport has been my girlfriend’
Our sport has taught me every lesson I’ve learnt in my life. It’s ripped my heart out and sent my heart racing with joy and excitement. My highest highs and my lowest lows were all as a result of my time in the boat. Sport has been my teacher, my girlfriend, my best friend and my worst enemy. It’s been my obsession, my emotional baggage, my strength and my weakness.
Sport has kicked me in the teeth when I’ve been down, and stuck out her arm when I needed help to get up. All of these life lessons, taught by strokes. Thousands and thousands a day, tiny lessons, one at a time.
All of those strokes have led to a tremendously fulfilling athletic career. As I reflect, I’m struck with how complete it has been. I’ve lined up as a relatively unknown youngster and as seasoned veteran. I’ve won each colour of Olympic medal, but I’ve also missed out on the podium a couple of times. I made O Canada play, but I’ve also got the tune to the Norwegian national anthem committed to memory. And the German anthem. And the Aussie’s. (Ours is my favourite.)
I’ve had the honour and privilege of carrying our flag at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. I’ve exceeded my expectations, met them square-on, and fallen short a couple of times as well. I have felt every single emotion that an athlete can feel. I think I’ve had the most holistic Olympic experience an athlete could ever ask for. I only have gratitude to express to everyone who I’ve met along the way, and I couldn’t dream of asking for anything more.
Driven by Martin Luther King’s message
After four Olympics, I’m thinking that I need a new kind of challenge. Being an athlete is a very selfish endeavour. I worry about what I eat, rather than that some people don’t have enough. I think about my fitness, not about issues like childhood obesity and inactive lifestyles. I have always wanted to be first, and as a result I’ve failed to put others first in my life.
I have always loved Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question — What are you doing for others?”
I don’t know what the future holds for me or what will get me out of bed in a few weeks or a few years, but I know that MLK’s question will guide my future endeavours.
All good things must come to an end. As I walk away from my career as an Olympic athlete I have heartfelt congratulations to everyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing a racecourse with. Our collective effort has created history, and I’m honoured to have been a part of it.