Lost, then found, in Golden
Written by Douglas Vandor
Sport is elation. Sport is anguish.
For the spectator, when the race is over or the match is played, feelings rebalance.
For the athlete who lived the experience, something is forever changed. The moment is now a part of their psyche, framing their outlook.
At the peak of his career, Rob Gibson, the Kingston, Ontario rower, savored the thrills of winning an Olympic medal, only to feel torment soon after.
The men’s eight, Gibson’s crew, had a trying week during the Olympic competition.
Saving their best race for the final, Gibson began the competition in rough waters.
“We started off the regatta badly,” explained Gibson. “It took a couple of meetings and some intense rows to work through our issues and regain our confidence. We had to convince ourselves that one bad race did not define us.”
Returning to Dorney Lake for the repechage (the second chance to make the final), the squad executed a solid performance, helping to erase some of the negative feelings that lingered following the heat.
“We went from bad to great throughout the week,” continued Gibson. “In hindsight, I think what happened in the early rounds was necessary. It gave us the opportunity to raise our game when it really mattered.”
The crew finished the regatta with a well-deserved second place.
“That silver felt like a gold,” the London Olympian emphasized. “It truly was a special moment.”
Following the Games, Gibson celebrated his newfound status as an Olympic medalist.
Upon returning to Canada, the Olympian took a well-deserved hiatus from rowing.
“I hadn’t really ever taken a break from the sport,” Gibson emphasized, “and it was something that I needed to do.”
The hype of London fading coincided with Gibson’s stepping away from the boathouse.
The parades and events were replaced with solitude, leaving the heavyweight rower alone to figure out his next step. And while he watched his teammates either continue training or move on, Gibson felt aimless.
By the following January, Gibson, having already relocated back to Kingston, was struggling.
“I was lost and confused. It seemed like all of my buddies knew what direction their lives were going in,” Gibson pointed out. “I was trying to figure out if I was finished with rowing or if I should keep going.”
It was a tough decision, and it left him paralyzed.
The one place where he found solace was at the gym. The comfort of working out was not only good for his body, but also for his soul.
“It messes with you,” a somber Gibson remembered of that time four years ago. “One minute you are on top of the world, and then the next you are just an average person trying to figure out life.”
In May of 2013, he decided to resume training on the west coast. Gibson was seeking structure in a world that he no longer recognized.
What he found in Victoria was anything but familiar.
There were many new faces at the training centre, in addition to a new coach who was implementing a different program.
The familiarity the Olympic silver medalist was searching for was absent, exacerbating his already confused state.
“I returned looking for my old world, and it wasn’t there,” Gibson said.
In addition, he was shuffled into the sculling (two small oars) pool, instead of continuing in the sweep (one large oar) group, the place where he felt most at home.
“I did have some experience sculling, but I was a sweeper! I won an Olympic medal in the eight!” Gibson proclaimed. “I was not a sculler!”
Having made the commitment to continue rowing for another four years, he remained obstinate, determined to succeed in his new discipline.
The challenge helped him.
He started to feel whole again. He had a purpose.
In the autumn of 2014, Gibson won his first national sculling title. He repeated that feat again the following year at the spring trials.
Gibson then went on to capture the silver medal at the Pan American Regatta, his first international race in the single. He also won a gold with his crewmates in the quadruple sculls event.
The stage was being set for the last and most important event of the 2015 summer season, the Olympic qualifying regatta.
“We were very confident that we would qualify the quad for Rio. That was the priority.” Gibson explained. “Things were good and we were on a roll.”
In France, however, everything did not unfold as planned.
In the highly competitive quadruple sculls event, where crews were regularly separated by fractions of a second, the Canadian men progressed through the Championships, faltering at every round.
They finished in 11th place, three spots out of a qualifying position.
“We were devastated. There are no other words for it,” reflected Gibson.
The athlete found himself in unsettling, if not familiar, territory.
Rowers live in an environment dictated by emotions, and these emotions are highly influenced by one’s most immediate performance.
“It brought me right back to 2008, when I failed to qualify the four for the Beijing Olympics,” he explained. “Was this going to be my legacy? Failing to qualify not one, but two crews for the Olympics?”
Gibson was distraught. The Olympic silver medalist felt like a failure once again. Back in Victoria, Gibson’s future was uncertain.
While his teammates in the sweep group made a site visit to Rio, the sculling squad decided to spend time away from Elk Lake, their home base.
They planned a road trip to, of all places, Golden, British Columbia.
In B.C.’s interior, the group did not row, but instead went on a survival hike, with only a map and a compass.
“We were dropped off at an undisclosed location in the mountains and we had to find our way home,” said Gibson while chuckling at the memory.
“We had to work together, we had to problem solve; we had to get home before dusk!”
There was no talk of their Olympic qualification disaster. There was no self-pitying. The group had a mission.
And if Gibson wasn’t sure whether to continue rowing before the hike, he had firmly made up his mind by the end of the expedition.
“There was a silent commitment made to one another that day,” he recalls. “That hike represented the beginning of the last leg of our journey together.”
The ensuing winter’s training philosophy was supported by the lessons learned on the Golden trip.
And when Gibson and his crew backed into the starting gates nine months later at the final Olympic qualifying regatta, they took care of the previous summer’s unfinished business.
Their result secured their tickets to South America.
With one race, Gibson’s fear that failure would be his legacy was forever erased.
“Something special happened last year in Golden that cannot be overstated,” said Gibson.
Indeed, something did happen.
A team found a golden opportunity to redeem itself, and in the process was granted another chance for a golden conclusion in Rio.
And when Gibson is asked today if he finally considers himself a sculler? He pauses. Then he smiles.
“Yes, I finally do.”
Rob, the rest of the world thinks so too.