Toronto Star: Canada's Mark Oldershaw relies on brain as much as brawn

This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website.

Olympic canoeist confident his years of experience will lead to success as the Pan Am Games and at the Rio Olympics.

BERNARD WEIL / TORONTO STAR Canadian canoeist Mark Oldershaw won bronze at the London Olympics in 2012. He's hopeful his years of experience will pay off in gold at both the Pan Am Games this summer and the Rio Olympics next year.


Canadian canoeist Mark Oldershaw won bronze at the London Olympics in 2012. He's hopeful his years of experience will pay off in gold at both the Pan Am Games this summer and the Rio Olympics next year.

When Mark Oldershaw didn’t make it past the semifinals in his canoe race at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, there was no shortage of shoulders to lean on.

“That’s what my dad and all my uncles had done, so after they were like, ‘Yeah, that’s what happens. It’s in the blood,’ ” Oldershaw said.

So at the next Games in London in 2012, when he finally broke the three-generation Oldershaw tradition of competing at the Olympics but not winning a medal, it was both a personal triumph and a huge moment for the whole family.

“Getting that medal,” he said of that bronze in the 1,000-metre canoe race, “everyone in my family was really excited about it because they’d always felt that they didn’t quite perform as well as they wanted to.”

Oldershaw’s medal in London neatly closed a family circle started by his grandfather Bert, who finished fifth in his Olympic paddling debut at the 1948 London Olympics. In between came uncles Dean and Reed at the 1972 and 1976 Games, and dad Scott, now his coach, at the 1984 Games.

And Burlington’s Oldershaw is not done yet. He’s looking to go even further into uncharted waters. Heading into the Pan Am Games this July and what is likely to be his last Olympics in Rio next year, he’s looking for gold.

Figuring out how to be better at something he’s already spent half a lifetime trying to perfect is no easy thing. That’s why he’s hired a new assistant coach to bring fresh perspectives on technique and training.

The key to success, Oldershaw thinks, lies in achieving a Goldilocks-perfect training regime.

In 2008 in Beijing, he felt a little underprepared; in 2012 in London he felt a little overtrained. So for Rio, he’s looking to get it just right.

So far, his year is coming along nicely. In May alone he won the national trials to represent Canada at the Pan Am Games, took the first World Cup of the season in Portugal and picked up a bronze at the second one in Germany.

It’s easy to see why too little training is a problem for an Olympic athlete, but too much can be just as damaging, particularly for Oldershaw. He’s 32 years old and the body-crushing grind of this sport has left him in such a state that he, in all seriousness, talks about being “very excited” that his new sponsor is Atoma, the official pharmacy of the Pan Am Games.

“I can get all the ibuprofen I want,” he said, smiling. “After the last Olympics that was one of the big things: Do I think my body can handle it?”

Mention canoeing and, for many, the image of a paddler in a cedar strip canoe slowly wending through a Group of Seven landscape comes to mind. That’s part of our Canadian culture, but it bears no resemblance to what Oldershaw does.

And his racing canoe, all of 14 kilograms, is nothing like the modern fiberglass and aluminum ones families take out for a weekend trip.

His canoe is uncomfortable, his paddling position unnatural — so unnatural that his whole body is out of balance with his left shoulder riding higher and right arm considerably larger.

“It’s like going from a car you drive on the road to a Formula One race car. You’re not going to be comfortable going for a long cruise. It’s built to go fast.”

In a 1,000-metre race, which takes about four minutes, Oldershaw uses 250 strokes, all on the right side of the boat. To do that on race day takes months of paddling hard at 15- to 20-kilometre distances and punishing sprint intervals.

At his age, every one of those strokes has to have a purpose. He can’t just pile on training because his body can’t take it. Just as his stroke has to be efficient in the boat to maximize his speed, his training has to be efficient to produce the best athlete with the least effort.

A young athlete can “throw stuff at the wall and hope it sticks,” he said. “Every time I’m on the water I have to be very focused. I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I can’t push myself like I did when I was 21.”

His friend and regular training partner, four-time Olympic kayak medallist Adam van Koeverden, has described canoe racers as “ballerinas and linebackers in one body.”

“I think he calls us that because he falls in when he goes in a canoe,” said Oldershaw, laughing.

But van Koeverden isn’t too far off.

“It’s about power and strength and finesse and technique as well. It’s definitely a balance. You can’t be this big strong brute and muscle your way through” a race, Oldershaw said.

The paddler who tries that can tip over and end up waiting for the rescue boat. That’s where Oldershaw found himself in the Beijing Olympics.

“I have one success story (London) and one failure (Beijing), and I can learn from both and see what I should do for Rio.”

He’s hoping he’s at the confluence that all elite athletes strive for, where they’ve gained enough experience to succeed mentally in the big moment while their body is still strong enough to produce the best physical performance.

“My strength will come from race experience and being more focused and mentally prepared,” he said.