Pursuit (Kayaking): Walking on water

Canada’s best gold medal hope may be a kayaker.

Adam van Koeverden is not your typical Canadian sports hero. For one thing, he’s pretty much useless with a hockey stick. And he wasn’t much better at other team sports growing up. But put a paddle in his hands and put him atop a precarious flat-water kayak, and he’s one of the best in the world. Indeed, he is the reigning Olympic and world champion in the K1 500 metres, making him Canada’s best bet for a medal this summer in Beijing.

Solo paddling might not seem much of a sport, but flat-water kayaking and hockey have more in common than you think. Both require short bursts of power and speed, and a lot of the kick comes from your legs. In a flat-water kayak, your feet are strapped in, but your knees are free to move, unlike a seawater or whitewater kayak, where you’re sitting on your duff. Your left leg goes down as you paddle on the left side, and then your right leg goes down as you paddle on the right side. “It’s a rhythmical thing, just like riding a bike,” says van Koeverden. “The instigating factor of your stroke is your leg drive, and it’s a very powerful and significant aspect of the stroke, and it uses a lot of energy.” Fortunately, 26-year-old van Koeverden has plenty of energy packed into his 1.82-metre, 87-kilogram frame. Although he has been kayaking since he was 13 at the Burloak Canoe Club in Oakville, a Toronto commuter hub on the northern shores of Lake Ontario where he was born, the discipline still doesn’t come naturally. For one thing, a kayak isn’t the most stable conveyance. By International Canoe Federation rules, a K1 (the K means “kayak” and the 1 means “one person”) is at most 520 centimetres long, and weighs at least 12 kg for sprints, making it long and light. “We’re fairly used to walking around on our feet, but to develop a feel for walking on the water with a paddle takes a little bit more upkeep,” says van Koeverden. “It’s not a pathway that is 100% ingrained in your brain. Even as a 12-year veteran of the sport, I still to some degree forget how to do it after a few months off the water.”

That won’t be a problem when van Koeverden starts racing in Beijing. He’s been training six to eight hours a day since February. His first major test was at the Canadian Olympic trials in May, where he won handily. It says something about the process of choosing athletes that the reigning Olympic and world champion wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the team. Van Koeverden was forced to qualify, like anybody else, by winning the team trials for the K1 500 and K1 1,000 in early May at Lake Lanier in Gainesville, Ga. If he hadn’t won, explains Anne Merklinger, CanoeKayak’s director general, who overseas the sport in Canada, he would have been able to qualify by being the fastest Canadian at either the first or second World Cup events of the year.

Fortunately, van Koeverden can now fully concentrate on the upcoming Games where he is one of a handful of Canadians who have a decent shot at the gold medal. That’s a lot of pressure, but he relishes it. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. I think that’s what drives us as athletes,” he says. “You need some degree of external pressure and some degree of internal pressure to get nervous. Whenever I’m nervous, whether it’s a kayak race or a school exam or a workout that I know is going to be very difficult, I know it’s just a reflection that I care about it and I want it to go well.”

Scott Oldershaw, his longtime coach dating back to the early days at Burloak, says van Koeverden doesn’t have any problems revving it up. “He can hurt himself out there in a race,” Oldershaw told the Toronto Sun. “He’s not afraid of the pain that is inevitable.”

Apparently, kayaking isn’t all fun and games. And van Koeverden knows all too well that a racing career is short. He’s already done more than most athletes ever will by winning 16 World Cup events, the overall World Cup four years in a row starting in 2004, and the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top athlete in 2004. The 2012 Games in London, when he will be 30, will likely be his last blast — but he’s been preparing for life off the water. He plugged away for seven years to earn an honours bachelor of science degree in kinesiology from McMaster University in Hamilton, and he’s considering getting his master’s degree.

Van Koeverden has also dipped his toe into more altruistic waters with Right to Play International, an organization that uses sport and play programs to teach healthy living, awareness, conflict resolution and general life skills to children in communities affected by war, poverty and disease. Last November, van Koeverden spent a few days in Liberia — a war-torn impoverished country in western Africa that used to be one of the continent’s most affluent — to get an up-close look at how Right to Play works, and to become a more effective spokesperson and ambassador for the program. He found that even though Liberia’s infrastructure is almost destroyed, the people, especially the 2,000 kids he ended up playing with, are the “most optimistic, joyful people you can imagine. We complain, ‘Oh, there’s no wireless here; this is bullshit.’ Are you kidding me? They don’t even have running water in their homes. The perspective just blows you away.”

Back on the water, van Koeverden is busy training and competing. It’s a grind, but he wouldn’t want it any other way. “I don’t consider training difficult, or the travel, or the ‘sacrifices’ you have to make to be negative at all,” he says. “To spend my 20s training hard, being fit and travelling the world, somehow I don’t see that as a sacrifice. I see it as an opportunity.”