Letter from Darren Barber – Olympic Champion
I am an olympic gold medalist in rowing and I trained under Spracklen during two olympics. Unfortunately his recent departure from Rowing Canada is getting a lot more attention than it deserves but I will voice my opinion regardless. It is painful enough reading comments from those who know nothing about the sport of rowing. Yet it is equally as painful reading comments from those who have dedicated years to the sport who are now mud slinging Scott Frandsen for standing up for what he believes in.
Let me begin by saying ‘rowing’ is a beautiful sport, at least I think so, otherwise I would not have dedicated over 20 years of my life to the sport as both a competitive athlete, a volunteer physician, and in a much smaller way as a coach. Rowing is one of those sports that requires intense volume to order to be competitive involving a full commitment of mind, body, and soul. There is immense sacrifice for no monetary reward. As an athlete, you put a lot of trust in the system when training three times a day, six days a week. You trust that in the end, selection has been fair and without controversy. Otherwise, why would an athlete invest so much of their time and energy to try and be the best in the world. As an athlete you play by the rules and at the very least, expect the same in return by coaches and the system (Rowing Canada) that runs your national sport. This is not always the case.
Coaches play a vital role in the success of an athletic program. A coach also has a lot of control. They can make the difference between a pathetic performance and a silver medal like what we witnessed with the heavy weight mens rowing team at the 2012 London olympics. Spracklen, for example, has had many such moments. In fact, he can be credited for revolutionizing the sport of rowing in Canada in the early 1990′s. Both the men’s and women’s team benefited from his training ‘methodology of volume’. I truly feel that the four golds and one bronze medal achieved at the 1992 olympics were a direct result of Spracklen setting foot on Canadian soil in 1990. He left to pursue coaching the US heavy weight mens rowing team from 1993-1996 with mixed success producing no olympic medals for the US team at the 1996 Atlanta olympics. The Canadian rowing team went on without him to have a very successful 1996 olympics – one of the most successful in the team’s history in fact. After he was let go in 1996 by the US rowing system, he returned home to the UK to coach the women’s team. Here is produced a silver medal at the 2000 Sydney olympics. Rowing Canada then opened it’s doors to him again in 2001 and he jumped at the opportunity.
Like any individual or team performance, the public sees the final outcome and not the rough knit under the sweater. What the public does not see as with any team, is the factory that produces the goods and the environment in which they are made. This environment can be a healthy one or one that can be toxic. As mentioned, a coach has a lot of control. With control there can also be potential for abuse in many forms. Every rower accepts the physical punishment of training and are no stranger to it. However, no athlete should have to endure emotional abuse. Spracklen has over stepped his boundaries on numerous occasions whether singling out individual athletes alone in person, or trying to shame them in front of the group of athletes they train with. Sometimes, he will put everyone at risk. On one occasion in 2004, he almost killed an entire team on Shawnigan Lake in winter gail force winds sinking both 8 man crews that were side by side in one outing. Rowing Canada was more than fortunate that the media did not get a hold of that story. He was responsible for 18 men getting hypothermia – some severe. If the small coach boat that he was in had capsized, there certainly would have been deaths that day in those frigid waters on Shawnigan Lake. The athletes tried to down play the event but you could smell the reality that death had come very close that day. The #1 highway just north of Victoria was actually closed do to the gail force winds that day but the team managed to circumnavigate this obstacle to get to Shawnigan Lake. I was the last one to be fished out of the water that day and I was livid. One rower could not swim. Spracklen was oblivious to the impact this had on his rowers. After everyone had recovered from their hypothermia and retrieved the boats and equipment once they had washed up on shore more than an hour later, we had a meeting where he went on about how poor our technique was in the windy conditions. Spracklen will argue that he never forced anyone to be there that day, or forced anyone against their wishes – true, but, if a rower had chosen not to participate in the workout that day, it would have decided their fate. This one example of many.
Rowing Canada has tried to listen to the athletes in the past but have been unsuccessful until recently. In 2008, Rowing Canada formed an Athlete Appeal Committee before the 2008 Beijing olympics to act as a resource for any athlete who felt that their selection was unfair. This was a big milestone. Rowing Canada asked three ex national team rowers to volunteer their time for this new role and all three accepted. I was one of them. An athlete who narrowly missed out on being selected for an olympic boat sought help from a private lawyer and then consulted the newly formed Athlete Appeal Committee to review their selection process. The Athlete Appeal Committee was in favour of the athlete and recommended to repeat the selection process for this athlete. These recommendations were rejected by Rowing Canada because of pressure from the coaches and high performance director at that time, who opposed repeating the selection for this athlete. The Athlete Appeal Committee pressed Rowing Canada but in turn were threatened legally to back down. The Athlete Appeal Committee has not been formed since and it is clear that it had no credibility in the first place when it was formed.
Over the last few years, a number of athletes were interviewed by Own the Podium, specifically by Mr, Ken Shields. Mr. Shields is an ex national team basketball coach who is well respected and a genuine person who listened to real concerns that some rowers voiced. There was clearly concern on many levels about Spracklen’s treatment of his atheltes. These concerns were in turn communicated to Spracklen who dismissed not only Mr. Shields but also the athletes concerns. One athlete overheard Spracklen making a mockery of the process. In the end, Rowing Canada had the fortitude to take action.
What is important to know, is that a lot of athletes that were good enough to make the cut, were let go either because of opinions of other athletes that swayed Spracklen’s opinion or because he simply had it in his mind from the beginning that an athlete was not going to make it. As a result, an athlete would try to remain intensely optimistic while getting beaten down day after day being used as canon fodder for the already ‘chosen’. Those who were chosen, knew who they were and on one occasion, an athlete got away with behaviour such as shouting obscenities at Spracklen and giving him the finger knowing they were immune from any consequences or repercussions.
A coach can abuse their power. The more they get away with, the more entitled they can feel. It’s also about the ego and in some cases it’s about bullying and knowing they can get away with it because they know that the athletes have no resources to fall back onto. It is absolute power and control. Sometimes a coach’s ego to win overshadows the ability to make the right decisions in a selection process. A man whos ego is greater than the sum of all the athletes he coaches is a dangerous thing. Spracklen was known to never take responsibility for his mistakes. After the abysmal performance in the 2004 Athens olympic final, he was reported to say “some of the rowers just gave up” negating any responsibility. When watching the final on Youtube, it is not too hard to see that one rower in the middle of the boat is not using his legs in the final stages of the race. But never did Spracklen take responsibility for that loss or single out and identify the rower(s) who performed so poorly.
It’s always an interesting turn of events to see the bully assume the role of the victim. The irony is that although Spracklen may be good enough to coach on the world stage, he’s being cut from the Canadian team, like many of the athletes he has cut in the past. He, and his few supporters will play the media to show that that he is the one hard done by – that he is the victim. I feel that Spracklen should show respect to all those athletes he himself has cut from all the many teams he coached who left with their heads held high despite controversy eating at their very core. He should do the same and quietly move on. His shoes will be easily filled as he will easily fill someone elses, and the Canadian rowing team will continue to succeed. Many international rowing coaches are transient although trying to find a 6 digit salary elsewhere may pose as a challenge. At present though, his current behaviour is insulting and offending to many by yet again, trying to single out, blame, and shame individual athletes for what he feels is his wrongful dismissal.
I have a treasure trove of stories on this matter and I challenge anyone who I rowed with who disagrees with what I have written.