Memories of Kathleen Heddle celebrated as Canada's women's eight score gold

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For Mike Bryden, watching the Tokyo Olympics from his home in Vancouver has brought light and joy to his family in what has been an otherwise emotional year.

Bryden is the husband of three-time Olympic rowing champion Kathleen Heddle, who died of cancer at age 55 in January.

"We've had a lot of tough days since we lost's been nice to feel her presence with the team today and feel some joy from that," Bryden said in a phone interview from his home Friday.

This week saw Canada capture two medals in rowing at the Games. In both wins, athletes honoured Heddle's legacy and contribution to the sport.

Victoria's Caileigh Filmer and her partner Hillary Janssens of Surrey B.C., took bronze Thursday in the women's pair after a gutsy performance that captured Canada its first medal in the event since Heddle and Marnie McBean won gold at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.

Janssens said the medal was all the more meaningful because of Heddle's passing, while McBean is serving as the country's chef de mission in Tokyo.

"That's so special," she said. "I'm so glad to be able to do that. Especially in memory of Kathleen...thinking about her family, and obviously Marnie's here and I hope Marnie watched and is proud."

"Two of the most amazing Canadian athletes and we're so happy to continue their legacy."

Heddle and McBean won Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 1996 in the coxless pair and double sculls respectively. They bothalso earned gold with the women's eight in 1992.

The duo carried Canada's flag at the 1996 closing ceremonies in Atlanta.

The Canadian women's eight crew also paid tribute to Heddle Friday after winning the first Olympic gold medal in the event since Barcelona '92.

The crew saw the thunderclouds in the sky as a sign that Heddle was there in spirit.

"It was just a reminder that Kathleen was with us -- and we're the storm and we're going to bring it," Susanne Grainger said. "We had a moment as a boat to remember her and make sure we brought the amazing grace and grit she rowed with into our race."

Bryden said McBean joined the women as they visited the The Remembrance Tree, a monument honouring athletes who have passed on, at the Olympic Village on the eve of the women's eight race.

Bryden, who joined his wife at the 1996 Games as an alternate for the men's eight rowing team, took the opportunity to send a message of encouragement and support to the team through McBean.

"It was just nice to know we were able to share some thoughts with them before they went out and raced. I think that allowed them to have not only Kathleen's presence with them as they raced but also the presence of that 1992 eight that won in Barcelona," he said.

"We knew Kathleen would be so excited for them."

Jennifer Walinga, a friend and fellow former Olympian, credits McBean and women's coach Michelle Darvill for sharing Heddle's contribution with this year's team.

"I'm sure (they) would have encouraged them to feel Kathleen's spirit," Walinga said in a phone interview from Victoria.

Walinga last saw Heddle in early 2020 when the women got together for a few training sessions before competing in a race in the United States. The team would eventually forgo competing as cases of COVID-19 started to reach North America.

"We were so fortunate to have that. To steal her away from her family during those tough times but she was healthy and feeling good," Walinga said.

Walinga said seeing this year's women's eight team bring home gold was an emotional experience.

"It's part of this beautiful thread of connection between the women of rowing right when it started in through to Kathleen who literally is, I would say, one of the strongest rowers ever of all time definitely in Canada."

-- with files from Joshua Clipperton

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 30, 2021.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: Both Heddle and McBean earned gold with the women's eight in 1992.

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