THE GAMES Gold Old Hat for McBean: Olympic Rowing Champions Shrug off Their Historic Performance

LAKE LANIER, Ga. — The best Olympic athletes Canada has ever produced were looking pretty relaxed about the whole thing.

Marnie McBean had flung her gold medal into her sports bag along with the flowers she had just been given on the dockside victory podium.

She had her game face on, the attitude that some athletes adopt when they want to assure you that, win or lose, it’s just another day at the office.

No, she was saying, the fact that she and her rowing partner, Kathleen Heddle, had just made Canadian Olympic history by being awarded a third gold medal just hadn’t sunk in.

Maybe it would later, she admitted, but she pulled a face at the suggestion that she might emit a “whoopee” or two in the privacy of her room.

That was Saturday and McBean and Heddle still had to ready themselves to race yesterday in the women’s quadruple sculls. But even after this race — and a third-place finish that was the blink of an eye away from a second — neither woman showed the slightest sign of acknowledging that they had joined a select group of the greatest athletes in Canadian history.

Heddle said she and McBean were watching the CBC on Saturday night when they heard themselves described in these historic terms and they laughed their heads off.

“It was ‘they can’t be talking about us,’, ” she said. “They don’t see how lazy we are and what we eat sometimes. We both have a that-can’t-be sort of attitude and I can’t see that changing in 20 years.”

But all the aw-shucks comments in the world can’t erase what these two women have accomplished in the past two Olympics.

In Barcelona four years ago, McBean, 28, of Toronto and Heddle, 30, of Vancouver won gold as crew members on the women’s eights team and also as a pair in the one-oar straights event.

Heddle retired after that and McBean, seeking new challenges, switched to the two-oar sculls event where she competed as a single. But she kept talking with her partner from Barcelona and, eventually, got the answer she was looking for.

As a sculls pair, they have looked supreme, winning the world championship last year and sweeping through Europe this spring. They seem to complement each other perfectly. Pick your metaphor for dissimilarity — fire and ice, chocolate and vanilla — and it will fit. Coaches praise them as a dependable rowing machine.

Heddle is shy, strong and, by all accounts, a stalwart who prefers to lead by setting an example. McBean is a bit of a motormouth, comfortable with the news media and with shouting out stroke rates and encouragement to her silent partner.

They first met at the Pan American Games in 1987 and were paired, somewhat against their wishes, in 1990. “I was too loud and she was too quiet,” McBean said.

On Saturday, they led from wire to wire in the double sculls, beating second-place China by 1.51 seconds.

And yesterday, as part of the quadruple sculls (along with Laryssa Biesenthal and Diane O’Grady), they had to wait long agonizing minutes while judges determined the result. In the end, the silver medal was awarded to a crew from Ukraine by the margin of 0.02.

“Knowing it was so close only makes it hurt more,” McBean said later. “I looked over and I thought we had the silver.”

But only the unwise would focus on the medals when talking to McBean.

“Getting back together wasn’t about winning Olympic gold,” she said. “I don’t think racing for us is about winning medals, it’s about winning the race. The medal is something they give to us so we can remember we won that race.”

It was likely the last race the two will be in together as Heddle plans to carry through with her retirement plans. McBean said she’s not likely to call again. “I’m not that dumb.”

Perhaps much, much later, Heddle admitted, she might think of her three gold medals and her place in history.

“It’s weird to think about; right now, it’s more exciting to think about all the people I’ll meet,” she said. “Maybe when you’re 60 and they induct you into the hall of fame, it’s easier to think about.”

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