The Maple Leaf on My Oar: Rowing for Canada

Published On: June 29, 2016

I’ll be the first to admit that rowing isn’t television’s most watched sport. Most Canadians only come in contact with it once every four years when Canada captures a few medals at the Olympic Games. What that means is that Canadians get a picture in their minds of what Canadian rowers look like – and that picture isn’t entirely accurate.

Most countries paint their oars with their national colours, often copying the design of their national flag. At Olympics Games and World Championships, Canadian rowers do the same: the maple leaf proudly and properly appears in a field of white with two red bars on either side.

What Canadians don’t see, though, is that that maple leaf is immediately stripped off the oar after the regatta, not to reappear until ­– or unless – that athlete makes an appearance at next year’s World Championships. Athletes train and compete for the other 51 weeks of the year with an empty field of white on their oars.

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the year for Canadian rowers comes at the very short, very informal meeting when they are handed their maple leaf decals to be placed on the oars. 

To call it a ceremony would be to overstate it, but it would be impossible to speak too strongly of the power that moment holds for an athlete. I have seen the biggest, strongest, toughest athlete cradle his maple leaf like a newborn. The culmination of all an athlete has done being represented by a five-cent decal can be overwhelming. The combined emotions of pride in what they have accomplished and of humility at being associated with such an important symbol render most silent.

I know that what we do is a pastime, an abstraction from issues that are far more pressing, and that it bears little relation to those who have worn the maple leaf in far more dire circumstances and to whom we owe more than can ever be expressed.

But for some of us, this is where our skills lie. Our contribution to this country and its culture is best done in this way. 

If a Canadian anywhere stands a little taller or – and this is always my wish – sings the national anthem a little louder because a Canadian athlete has done them proud, then we have made our contribution. And all of the meaning that we attach to that little decal is worth the sweat, the blood and the pain that the athlete went through to earn it.

From all of us at CSCM, happy Canada Day! 

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