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TOKYO — The pain etched on their faces cut deep.
Canada's rowers — a powerful, proud group of athletes intent on pulling a decorated program forward — had been all but shut out of the medals on the murky waters of Rio de Janeiro's urban Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Sure, Lindsay Jennerich and Patricia Obee rebounded from their own disappointment at the London Games four years prior by winning silver in women's lightweight double sculls.
The rest of team, however, fell spectacularly flat with the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue towering overhead.
Rowing Canada had scuttled its storied, headline-grabbing men's eight crew — the boat won gold in 2008 and silver in 2012 — ahead of Brazil in favour of a men's four and men's quadruple sculls. The hope was splitting personnel and resources would double the country's chances at a medal and subsequent cash from the government-funded Own The Podium program.
But the heavily criticized plan backfired in just about every way imaginable as the men's four finished last in the six-boat final, while the men's quad failed to even make its medal race.
The women's eight, which grabbed Olympic silver four years earlier and had medalled at the three previous world championships, was another podium hopeful, but wound up a disappointing fifth.
Some of the emotionally drained athletes worried openly about the program's future in the immediate aftermath of their shambolic showing, keenly aware what it could mean after OTP provided almost $17.5 million — more than any other summer sport — to Rowing Canada in the quadrennial between London and Rio.
"We know what's at stake when we're out there," a crestfallen Conlin McCabe of Brockville, Ont., said following the final of the men's four in Brazil. "We're trying to row our best race for ourselves ... but we know that rowing in Canada depends on it.
"That's the way sport in Canada works with Own The Podium."
Rowing Canada, not surprisingly, underwent significant changes after Rio.
The heads on both men's and women's streams left the fold along with high performance director Peter Cookson, who was responsible for the men's eight play and the firing of famed coach Mike Spracklen after London, while CEO Donna Atkinson's tenure ended in January 2017.
Five years after the disaster at Lagoa Stadium, instead of the usual four thanks to COVID-19, the doom and gloom surrounding the program has lifted, at least for now.
Canada is confident and re-energized heading into the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics with 10 boats in the running — the most since its six-medal 1996 Atlanta Games, and gender neutral for the first time — when competition begins Friday at Sea Forest Waterway.
"There's a significant number of those athletes that are expecting to be in 'A' finals and on podiums," Rowing Canada high performance director Iain Brambell said. "As much as it's about representing the team and the Maple Leaf, it's also about putting the Maple Leaf on the podium.
"The expectation of the athlete is to achieve."
Canada's contingent — once again without a men's eight, although the country attempted to qualify the boat two years ago — will be led by 2018 world champions Caileigh Filmer of Victoria and Hillary Janssens of Surrey, B.C., in the women's pair on Tokyo Bay.
Other medal contenders on the women's side include Jessica Sevick of Strathmore, Alta., and Gabrielle Smith of Unionville, Ont., in double sculls; Carling Zeeman of Cambridge, Ont., in single sculls; and the women's eight.
As for the men, Canada is hoping its four consisting of Jakub Buczek of Kitchener, Ont., Kingston's Will Crothers, Hamilton's Luke Gadsdon and Gavin Stone of Brampton, Ont., can reach the podium, while McCabe and Kai Langerfeld of North Vancouver, B.C., in the pair, and Trevor Jones of Lakefield, Ont., in the single sculls are also expected to be in the mix.
While the program is optimistic heading into the regatta, there will also be plenty of unknowns in Japan's searing summer heat.
A number of crews haven't raced competitively since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic. There's been plenty of training among the athletes, who basically walled themselves off from the outside world and put their lives on hold for an extra year in order to safely prepare for the Games, but it's difficult to know how the group will fare against adversaries they haven't stared down in nearly 24 months.
"We can't say, 'This is how they went last year, these are the things that we've changed this year, and these are the teams we're going to be racing,'" said Brambell, an Olympic bronze medallist for Canada in the lightweight men's four in 2008. "All those teams, in some form or another, have changed. And we actually don't know how fast those crews are.
"We know we've improved our speed collectively across the board, but our assumption is all nations have."
Rowing Canada received less money from OTP for the quad between Rio and Tokyo — just shy of $15.9 million, plus another roughly $4 million during the subsequent 12 months because of the pandemic — but still ranked third in overall funding behind swimming and athletics.
The program has consolidated its training to a central hub on Vancouver Island instead of the previous setup that saw one facility in B.C. and another in Ontario.
Brambell went out of his way to credit Cookson and other predecessors for getting Canada on a path he believes will produce a larger talent pool and hopefully enable the country to one day get back to a place where a men's eight is feasible — along with smaller boats.
The program won four golds as part of a five-medal haul at the 1992 Games in Barcelona before those six podium finishes (one gold, four silver, one bronze) in 1996, but hasn't enjoyed that type of across-the-board success since.
"The mentality that we're operating off of, and the vision that we're deliberately setting, is: 'How do we get to a place where we're actually bringing the team more together?'" Brambell said.
Canada's 41 all-time rowing medals sit third behind athletics (60) and swimming (49), but the program has stepped on the podium more than once at a Games on just two occasions in the last five Olympics, including a solitary gold.
"We don't have a fixed target on: 'This is how many medals we're going to win,'" Brambell said of Tokyo. "But we feel confident in the whole program.
"There are a variety of boats — given the history — we feel pretty strongly about."
After plenty of reflection the last five years, they'll have an answer soon enough.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2021.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press