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Defending Olympic champion Canadian rowers face hard road back to podium

Canada's men's eight rowing team (Reuters)The journey back to the podium just got harder for the defending Olympic gold medal winning men's eight rowing team.

The Canadian men finished last in their four-boat heat Saturday at the London Olympic Games. It was a hugely disappointing performance before a soldout crowd of 30,000 at the Eton College rowing basin.

"It was just a bad race,'' Canadian cox Brian Price told Ed Willis of Postmedia.

''Physically there's nothing else we can do. Everything is in our heads at this point. It's up to us to believe in each other and the training we've done."

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The reality of the situation was like being hit with a bucket of cold water for the team. Canada now must finish in the top four of the six-boat repechage on Monday to qualify for Wednesday's medal race.

"We're unhappy," said Victoria's Malcolm Howard. "We didn't do what we set up to do. We'll have to improve on Monday.''

Germany, which is undefeated in three years, won the heat to move directly to Wednesday's final. Hometown favourite Britain was second and the Netherlands third.

The United States also advanced in the other heat.

The men's eight came into the Olympics brimming with potential but also facing questions. The boat set a world-best time in their heat at the World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland, a couple of months ago.

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The boat has six first-time Olympians and nerves might have been a factor in Saturday's opening day of Games' competition. Canada had a decent start but after the 500-metre mark the German and British crews surged while the Canadians had no response.

"If that had happened to us before, I don't think we'd have let it happen to us again," said Howard, who with Andrew Byrnes and Price, won gold four years ago in Beijing.

"Sometimes you can put that down to inexperience. But it's what you make of it. We have to pick ourselves up and focus on what's right. I mean, that's what it's about."

The men's eight have experienced Olympic frustration before. They went to the 2004 Athens Olympics as world champions and were heavily favoured to win gold, but finished a disappointing fifth.

Howard said the crew must be stronger physically and mentally in Monday's do-or-die race.

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"I'm still the leader of this crew and I'm the person who's supposed to prepare these guys," he said. "I think after a race like that I feel that responsibility and I feel anger toward myself. It's what I do with that and what we do with it as a crew to improve it."

Peter Cookson, Rowing Canada's high-performance director, believes Canada can still reach the final in London.

"They're a quality crew," he said. "I think when we get to the final we'll be ready to go. They're a crew of character. They have a lot of internal strength."

More London Olympics content on Yahoo! Canada Sports:
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Photos: Canada at Opening Ceremony
Guide: What to watch Saturday, July 28
Video: Olympic goals more than just medals for Canada

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