Battling Your Demons

Jack Beresford Jr.

One of the world’s best oarsmen in the pre-Steven Redgrave era was the Englishman Jack Beresford Jr. He rowed his first Olympic race already in 1920, 21-years old, in the single sculls. His rival, the American sculler Jack Kelly, won the final, one second ahead of Beresford. The Englishman continued to take an Olympic gold medal in the boat class four years later (when Kelly took a gold in the double sculls together with his cousin, Paul Costello). Beresford then took a silver in the eights in the 1928 Amsterdam Games and another gold in the coxless fours in the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Beresford’s most famous race, however, was at the 1936 Olympic regatta in the double sculls where he and his partner Dick Southwood managed to pass the German double with 200 metres to go to the finish line. When Beresford was asked to comment on their amazing come-from-behind victory, he said, a crew “must get a bit of hate into their racing”.

It is maybe easy to understand a ‘hate’ between adult rowers, but how about a deeply felt hate towards another high school or college crew, where one crew takes to the water in a regatta with the intent to totally crush all the competitors? Where it is not really a competition, but a war between the boats? Forget Coubertin’s ideal that the important thing is to take part, not to win – victory is everything!

This is not, however, the way my coach taught us young boys to row at my Swedish rowing club in Malmö. We boys were messing about in boats because it was fun. Some of us did compete – my first competition was a 4,5-kilometre race in a coxed inrigger four around the canal in Malmö (yes, we did win). But while my friends rose to become stars in the sport, becoming Swedish champions and representing Sweden in the Nordic Championships and the World Championships, I never excelled at the oar. Maybe my lack of ‘success’ had to do with my meager approach to winning, and that I was a ‘non-competitor’?

The Canadian Jason Dorland used to have a tough approach to rowing which started already in high school: at every race he and his teammates went to war, he writes in his well-written Chariots and Horses: Life Lessons from an Olympic Rower (2011), which HTBS has mentioned earlier. Jason really hated his competitors, he was in the boat to kill them. How did they dare to race against him, trying to take away his and his crew’s victory? Jason trained hard and worked his way up to the top of Canadian rowing, all the way to representing his country at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. The Canadian men’s eight was the reigning Olympic champions from 1984, with four of the crew members in the 1988 eight.  The 24-year-old Jason was the newcomer, the youngest, lightest, and the last man to be picked for the 1988 Olympic crew.

Canada made it to the Olympic final via a repechage heat. At the start for the final, the world’s best eights were lined up: Australia, USA, West Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and Canada. The Germans had been delayed at the start due to problems with some equipment, but when all the boats were ready, Jason had worked himself up to a real fighting mood. He had waited 15 years for this moment to take an Olympic gold medal, he writes in his book, so to hell with the rest of the crews. When the boats were off, Jason thought their boat felt ‘heavy and sluggish’. At the 250-metre mark, the Canadians were in the lead together with the Germans. But as Jason and his teammates pulled and pulled the boat got heavier and heavier – no speed, no nothing. They were rapidly losing ground. At 1,000-metre, the Canadian boat was fifth and fading. The Germans crossed the finish line first followed by the Russians, then the Americans, the Brits, the Aussies, and dead last, Canada. The photograph on the cover of Chariots and Horses of the Canadian eight tells everything.

See parts of the race below:

What happened? That was the question that everyone asked. Jason did not have any answers, nor was he willing to discuss the crew’s ‘failure’, as it was called in the Canadian press, with anyone, not even his family. For Jason, going to the Olympics had not been to represent his country or to race the best in the world – it was about winning medals. He did not only feel anger, but he also felt, he writes, “another emotion, one that I would struggle with for years to come – shame.”

That was one of the reasons Jason more or less fled Canada to become a rowing coach in Australia for a year, but the move did not help much; he just turned from an angry rower into an angry coach, teaching the ‘killer’ mentality that only winning counts. He continued to teach rowing this way also when he returned to Canada, and also for a short stint a junior girls’ volleyball team.

But he had to somehow show everyone that he was not a loser, and the only way he knew how to was to start training rowing again on an elite level. This time the Canadian men’s team was trained by Mike Spracklen, the British low-keyed, soft-spoken former coach of Steven Redgrave. At a training camp in spring 1990, Jason did not do well, and had to cut it short due to catching the flu. Sometime thereafter, he decided to stop trying to make the National team. (The Canadian men’s eight, with Spracklen as coach, took an Olympic gold medal at Barcelona with some of the oarsmen from the 1988 eight.)

The decision to stop rowing on an elite level was not easy for Jason, nor did it really give him peace in his mind. He was still a bitter young man, and he still behaved like a jerk, he says in his book. Still riding his demons, he started dating a young lady, Robyn Meager, who was an elite runner. Jason was appalled, however, when he heard her approach for competing at the Commonwealth Games: “I will give it my best shot and see what happens.” How could anyone on a top level have the approach of a six-year-old”, he asks. “Give it your best shot? You’ve got to be kidding.”

Jason Dorland

After fifteen years of being hunted by the demons of losing that 1988 Olympic race, Jason started to come around, mostly watching his then fiancée, later wife, Robyn’s attitude towards her running races. It helped him to drop the ‘macho approach’ and coach his rowers at the Shawnigan Lake School to have fun rowing; he did not even mention the word ‘winning’ during the students’ practice.

I have to be honest and say that I was a little skeptical when I began reading Jason Dorland’s book, only because it was labelled ‘life lessons’ on the cover. I guess I was afraid it was going to be another of those books that would like you to run your life as if you were an elite athlete and your career was a sport competition; instead Jason’s Chariots and Horses is the opposite. This book is not a handbook in the art of coaching rowing, but it has many different levels about how to handle failures (yours and others), how to recognise and overcome your demons, and how to inspire and give young people a healthy approach to competing and keeping the spirit high even though they are not the first ones to cross the finish line.

Jason is sometimes brutally honest, mostly about his own short-comings, but that way his writing rings more true to what he has to say about competing and struggling on the highest of sport levels. Although, I maybe cannot truly imagine how Jason felt as an ‘Olympic failure’, his writing reminds me of some of my own short-comings in other fields during my life and how painful they were then (and sometimes still are when I am reminded of them). Jason’s book made me reflect on and remember how parts of your life are not battles to win, but episodes to go through still with your head held high. It is important to keep in mind for the upcoming Olympics this summer!

When Jason’s senior men’s eight from the Shawnigan Lake School, in the end of his tale, for the first time wins the national championship, Jason and everyone around him, including the crew, weep of emotion. When I put the book down, I realised that my cheeks were wet, too. A good read it was!

Go to Jason Dorland’s website to read more about his book and how to order it.

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