Lesley Thompson-Willie pushes, prods women's eight to Olympic silver medal

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

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Team Canada celebrate with their silver medals for the women's eights.


 

WINDSOR, England -- Some rowers couldn't remember much. The race had been a blur of excitement and exhaustion. While the crowd roared and their bodies burned and their brains begged for oxygen, they had a hard enough time concentrating on each stroke. They had no perspective on the scene, no way to process it.

"Do you know how close it was at the end?" Vancouver rower Lauren Wilkinson asked after Canada won silver in the women's eight Thursday, half a boat length behind the powerhouse United States boat. "I honestly have no idea. I was just listening to our coxswain."

But that's why they have coxswains, and that's why Canada has been so lucky to have Lesley Thompson-Willie for so long. All the rowers could remember things the legend had said as they pulled themselves for two kilometres on Dorney Lake.

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"Believe! Believe you can do this! Keep moving! Keep attacking!" The words sparked the Canadians as they found themselves in a struggle for position. "Max! Give it your all!" The command cut through the haze and pushed them.

And finally, when they needed to push even more …

"Max plus!"

"Just when you think you can't go any harder, she says, 'Max plus!' " Wilkinson said. "You find you have another gear, a little more gas in the engine."

Thompson-Willie is 52. She is five foot three and 110 pounds, and she does not hold an oar, let alone pull one. But she is one of Canada's most decorated Olympians and holds the deepest respect of her teammates, and she made a difference in what was probably her final race.

In her seventh Olympics -- it would have been her eighth, had the 1980 Moscow Games not been boycotted, believe it or not -- she earned her fifth medal, following silver in coxed four in Los Angeles, then gold in Barcelona, silver in Atlanta and bronze in Sydney in the eights. Only two Canadians have won more medals: cyclist/speedskater Clara Hughes and speedskater Cindy Klassen, who won six each.

"She is a matriarch of rowing," teammate Rachelle Vinberg, from Regina, said. "She is the best coxswain in the world, hands down."

That might seem like a dubious distinction. Best coxswain? Best at being small, weighing little, sitting forward and screaming stuff, while the big, muscular rowers sit backward and do all the work?

But Thompson-Willie steers the crew in every sense of the word. She literally steers the boat, which is easier said than done. She must keep the narrow 60-footer perfectly straight for 2,000 metres, lest it drift off-line and lose precious fractions of a second, and she must do it while coaxing the best out of her teammates. She has to know strategy and psychology; what to say, when to say it and how to say it.

"Through her voice, she can inspire us," Andreanne Morin of Montreal said. "She's always been a very calm voice, a soothing voice, a supporting voice. She's brought us to where we are today."

Thompson-Willie took a sabbatical from her day job, teaching, in London, Ont., so she could commit completely during the Olympic year. She trains with the rowers, because she can't ask them to do something she wouldn't do herself, even though she is old enough to be their mother.

"We can communicate just looking at one another," said Morin, who sits in the stroke seat, face-to-face with Thompson-Willie, setting the pace for the others. "I can see in her eyes what she's thinking. She can sense what I'm thinking and the bond that we share together is something really special that I'll always cherish."

Morin choked up.

"I thought going out in this race today, 'This is her last one. She's been at this for 35 years. I'm going to do it for her,' " Morin continued. "I gave it my all, but that last 500 was all heart, and it was for Lesley."

Morin said that even though this was her last race, too. She's heading back to law school in Montreal in 2 1/2 weeks.

The Canadians were third for most of the race four years ago in Beijing, but in the last 100 metres, the Romanians caught them -- and then the Dutch caught them both. The Americans won gold, the Dutch silver, the Romanians bronze. The Canadians finished a disappointing fourth.

The past three years, the Canadians had been closing the gap steadily on the Americans. They finished only .03 behind them in May at the World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland. Thompson-Willie said she had never been part of a better crew, including the one that won gold 20 years ago.

"These women are faster," she said. "The field is faster."

But the Americans are undefeated in world championship and Olympic races since 2006, and they were just too strong Thursday, taking a large early lead and holding it. The Canadians found themselves fighting the Dutch for silver. Thompson-Willie had to use the magic term.

"There was a 'Max plus!' again today, of course," Morin said. "For me, that 'Max plus!' meant the Dutch are not coming back the way they did in '08. 'For all the teammates that were not in this boat … this is not happening. I am not letting this happen twice.' "

The Canadians pushed hard in the last 250 metres. It was not enough to catch the Americans, but it was enough to hold off the Dutch and the Romanians, who finished 3-4 this time. There was elation afterwards, mixing with the emotion that Thompson-Willie might have reached her own personal max plus.

Amid the celebration, her husband, Paul Willie, talked about the possibility of her retirement.

"We started that conversation perhaps a month, a month and a half ago, and we both just left it hanging because we both came to realize what was most important at that time," Willie said. "Just focus on this. Get this out of the way. And then once that happens …"

Natalie Mastracci, the coxswain’s 23-year-old teammate from Thorold, Ont., interrupted him as he spoke.

"Thank you for having Lesley," she said. "She is the greatest. She is the one who got us that medal."

He choked up.

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"Yeah," he continued, eyes full of tears. "So we just said. 'Let's not go there. Just leave it alone till after this, then we'll start that conversation again.' "

Thompson-Willie still loves rowing, still has the fire to win. She still checks rowing websites right after breakfast every morning. She still can't declare she's done. "Wrong day to decide," she said. "It's been my life. It's been 35 years in a boat. So it's hard to just say goodbye."

But all the training leaves her exhausted, she will be 56 for the Rio regatta and no one can go on forever. She acknowledged that Canada has other coxswains coming up, and though she would like to remain involved, she allowed it would "probably not" be in a boat.

Asked what had been the best part, she didn't hesitate.

"The women," she said.

But then she was the one who choked up, and suddenly, that inspiring voice trailed off, at a loss for words.

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