In the current era defined by COVID-19, cancellations of major events have become the norm. From concerts to conferences, and now the world’s largest sports event, the Olympics have been ruled out for 2020.
This means countries will be even more eager to see their top athletes compete when the torch is eventually permitted to be lit. While Canada traditionally fares stronger in the Winter Olympics, there are some summer sports that they’ve proven to dominate in, like rowing.
At the Summer Olympics, the men’s 8-boat race is largely considered rowing’s premier event. Despite a disappointing result of not even qualifying for the finals in 2016, Canada won silver at London in 2012, and gold at Beijing in 2008.
To crack a roster spot in a boat as coveted as Canada’s 8-man is challenging to say the least. Just like NHL hockey stars, top rowers spend years refining their craft.
It’s for this reason that Olympic rower Jeremiah Brown’s journey is so compelling. Like most Canadian kids, the Cobourg native grew up playing hockey, but he transitioned to football when he began studying at McMaster University. Despite his tall and lengthy build, Brown was a standout offensive lineman on the Marauders. Even with this success on the gridiron, upon graduation in 2008, he wasn’t totally satisfied with his athletic career.
“My ultimate goal was to become an athlete of some distinction and some sport and really just to realize my potential,” said Brown. “And so, when I found rowing, for the first time I realized that this is the sport probably most conducive to the natural strengths and talents that I had as an athlete.”
That summer after graduation Brown was introduced to the sport of rowing for the first time.
“I was struck by this dream of becoming an Olympian when I was watching the Olympics in my parents’ basement one day in August, and I watched the Canadian men win the gold medal in the men’s eight event for Canada,” Brown said.
Considering how quickly he learned football, Brown had every reason to be optimistic about picking up the paddle, especially now that he found a sport better suited to his physical build.
Yet, this time around, in order to achieve his highest potential, his move wouldn’t just be down the 401 and 403 highways. If Brown wanted to become a legitimate contender for the Canada men’s rowing quad, he’d have to move to where they trained: in Victoria, British Columbia.
Now it would have been one thing had Brown got a plane ticket and moved across the country on his own, but he was embarking on this challenge with both his girlfriend Amy and their newborn baby son.
“I framed it as, let’s go out there for a couple of years, we’ll see how it goes, and I can establish myself in my career,” explained Brown, who landed a job at TD Bank in Victoria.
“It was mostly about getting a job out of university, most of us want to get our careers established. So, this did emerge, and it just happened to work out well with also this dream of rowing.”
Once in Victoria, Brown met legendary Canada Rowing coach Doug White, and their conversation gave him at least a little more hope.
“I was sitting in front of Doug and he asked me, ‘well, how far do you think you want to take this and what is your actual goal?’ And that was the first time I really vocalized it to someone,” said Brown.
“Even though I had flown across the country to pursue my moonshot dream, you’re still feeling insecure until you start to have other people around you with credibility who can validate your path,” Brown added. White knew the path to get to the highest levels. The seasoned rowing coach only just retired from the sport last year after instructing rowers for more than five decades.
Brown’s routine consisted of being on the water every morning before work. His first two years in 2009 and 2010 were spent under White’s supervision working with a small training group. These exhausting mornings helped propel Brown to the base level he needed to be at in order to compete with other top Canadian rowers.
Towards the end of this second year, all of his hard work began to pay off. Brown competed in the single skull (one-person boat) at the Rowing National Championships in the UK. He placed in the top 10, which proved to be good enough to get an invitation to join Canada’s national team.
By 2011 he was training with the country’s best, including his new teammate and Olympic gold medalist, Kevin Light.
“I essentially learned how to row properly sitting behind him in the boat. And he put up with all my balance issues – and all the things that would frustrate the typical experienced rower – because he saw in me this energy and passion and strength that I could bring to the boats. And I saw in him this experience and wisdom and of course, ability,” said Brown.
Leading up to the London Olympics in 2012, Brown and has teammates kept up their vigorous training. In a sport that comes down to milliseconds, every gain makes a difference.
Favoured to repeat as gold medalists, the London 2012 men’s final quickly became a race between the Canadians, Americans, and Germans. By the end of 2000 metres, it was the Germans passing the finish line first, and the Canadians coming in second.
Brown remembers the climactic moment vividly.
“It’s this feeling of euphoria that passes through your body. It’s really an incredible sensation of slowly realizing what’s happened,” Brown said. “And then you’re processing that, and the pain is lifting from your body, and then you feel relief at all the things that could’ve gone wrong.”
Once on the podium in London, it was no longer just a dream. Brown was an Olympic silver medalist for Team Canada.
Today, Brown shares this story of overcoming adversity and attaining his Olympic goal to thousands. He has become one of Canada’s most sought after keynote speakers.
His resume includes TD, Loblaw, Rexall, Twitter, and Marsh Insurance.
He has also since written a book, The 4-Year Olympian.
Photo: Olympic rower Jeremiah Brown shares his story of overcoming adversity.