Canadian and international rowing community pays tribute to Kathleen Heddle
- Jan 30, 2021
Three-time Olympic gold medallist Kathleen Heddle passed away peacefully following a long battle with cancer surrounded by her loved ones at home in Vancouver, BC, on January 11, 2021. Rowing Canada Aviron (RCA) released the somber news at the request of Kathleen’s family – a mournful day that will forever be etched in many minds and hearts, a person that will forever be idolized and admired. Kathleen was not only revered for her historic Olympic accomplishments, she was adored for her quiet leadership, humbleness, and grace.
We memorialize Kathleen Heddle with tributes and memories from many of her closest rowing friends, teammates, coaches, and those who have been deeply impacted by Kathleen’s everlasting legacy.
Three-time Olympic gold medallist, four-time Olympic medallist
Many people assume that our favorite shared memories will be of big races or big moments on the podium or with the flag, but they’re not. My cherished memories with Kathleen are the quiet ones that were private and so hard earned. The language between us was almost in code – where a word, a glance or a nod would refer to paragraphs if not days and weeks of discussion. I’m grateful Kathleen showed me how to appreciate the value in a subtle action. I’ll miss them.
Kathleen had an incredible ability to remain focused on what the important things are, which were always in line with her values and integrity. When I would get distracted by superfluous issues, she had a beautiful way of grounding me back, leading me to remember not just what the goal is but ‘Why’ and ‘How’ the goal is. This is a skill I try to take forward every day.
1992 and 1996 Women’s Head Coach, multi-medal winning Olympic coach
There are too many fond memories and her role in the success of our women’s rowing teams from 1987 to 1996 is an obvious one.
My favourite story was when she offered me a ride to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal in February of 1995. I was coaching rowers in Vancouver and Victoria and Kathleen had not decided whether she would retire from rowing after being a World Championship silver medallist in 1994. I knew pressure from me would not work and we spent all our time just talking about her family and her dreams. Just before I got out of the car, I asked the question that I had to ask: “Will she row until the 1996 Olympics?” She paused and said yes. This memory summed up Kathleen. She made a big decision but had no idea how much it meant to so many people. She always understated the powerful influence she had over others. I believe to this day she may have always lived her life that way. She was the greatest but never acted that way.
Another favorite story, about four weeks prior to the 1996 Olympics, as Marnie McBean and Kathleen prepared for their races, I asked them, “What kind of a coach do you want me to be at the Olympic Games?” Marnie had lots of ideas and this worked out well due to her role as bow seat in their double. In her role she organized a lot of the racing and training activities. Kathleen said, “Al, we have worked well together for 7 years but I do not really need anything.” She re-enforced what I always knew. It went back to advice, one of her many coaches named Dick McClure said to me in 1990, “You will not need to coach her; she is a natural.”
Words that describe how much I admired her include:
Humble, graceful, funny, talented, family oriented, comfortable with herself.
1994 Olympic silver medallist, four-time Olympian and Canadian Olympic Committee President
Being involved in rowing and with the Olympics I remember especially Atlanta and just the mastery of who Kathleen was as an athlete. Some of my best memories of Kathleen though were just our talks – when we used to run together, or when we were on FISA together- anytime we ran into each other – calm, thoughtful, and she never missed a thing. Kathleen just got the essence of something and her perspective was so clear, her integrity unwavering. Just solid. It just made me feel, in my heart, that all was right in the world. For a while Kathleen lived in the suite in my house with Mike (Kathleen’s husband) joining her first and always with his great smile, then sweet Lyndsey joining them; then Mac, when they finally outgrew the place. Seeing what Kathleen built with Mike and the kids gave me that same feeling.
Two-time Olympic gold medallist
Heddle (called you Heddle for 34yrs, I am not going to stop now), rowing brought us together and our friendship endured for all the years that followed. I am blessed with so many unforgettable memories, stories and fun times that will live on forever.
You were truly an amazing and inspiring teammate. A journey that began in the summer of 1987, proudly sewing our Rowing Canada badges on our jacket breast pocket on the way to racing our first international at the World Student Games. Then, extraordinarily finishing at the 2019 Head of Charles, doing the usual walk between hotel and boat tent, eating pasta, racing hard and winning. You brought a tremendous confidence and truthfulness to every rowing experience, on and off the water. It was an honour, a privilege and a blast being your teammate.
Over and above our time in rowing was our time outside rowing. You will always be an incredible friend with whom an unbreakable bond existed because of your unshakeable belief, determination and trust – making sure we always did what we said we would do; your strength of character – always a listening ear and an objective perspective to offer; your humour – subtlety creating amusement when it was needed most, including buying me a light activated magnifying glass for my 50th when I was in denial about needing glasses, and a wonderful sense of kindness and caring for others. I have a lot to smile, smirk, giggle and laugh about, thanks to you. You are my dearest friend who, quite simply, I loved to hang out with and I will deeply miss.
Your friend forever,
(Barney, that is for you)
Former National Team Coach and 1956 Olympic silver medallist
My fondest memory is Kathleen’s enormous commitment to achieving perfection in all aspects of rowing and competition. Her humble acceptance of her enormous genetic gifts of power, skill and will. She was my friend and I will always remember her.
1996 Olympian and three-time World Champion
My fondest memory of Kathleen was just simply hanging out as friends and being together. We had a close relationship that was comfortable with lots of laughter. We had many wonderful times whether it was travelling to Cairns, following the 1990 World Championships in Tasmania, living together during the training days, or getting all dressed up to go out on a Saturday night in Victoria BC, following another tough training week.
Having the opportunity to train together with our 90’s crew in beautiful Strathcona Park in 2019 was a true blessing. Kathleen sat in the front of me in 4 seat and a few times in between workout pieces we would have a brief word or a smile about our driven group of women that were still striving for technical improvement or wanted another trip of the lake while on our training camp. One late afternoon after practice I remember vividly sitting on the deck of her cabin overlooking the lake and mountains. The two of us had a long overdue chat just feeling the warmth of the sun and taking in the gift of that moment. The beauty of that view and the peaceful conversation will forever be etched in my mind and heart.
Kathleen’s honesty, confidence and sense of humour are the most admirable traits that will remain with me forever.
Olympic gold medallist and FISA President
As an athlete, I have always had immense respect for Kathleen the rower, the champion, and I must admit that I was very impressed to sit alongside her on the FISA Athletes’ Commission, and subsequently work with her when she became president of the commission. Beyond her prowess as an athlete, I will always remember her personality. She was calm, always brought a positive attitude, always poised. Truly, a beautiful and kind person.
The notoriety of a sport also rests on its great champions, and without a doubt Kathleen is on rowing’s list of legends who mark the history of our sport.
She has made amazing contributions to the promotion of rowing, and well beyond Canada, not only with her exemplary record and career, but also with an incredible personality and discrete character, both of which inspire great respect.
A member of the FISA Athletes’ Commission in the 90s, she was president until 2002 and in this capacity represented rowers across the globe in the governing bodies of the international federation—a role and a mission that she assumed in a remarkable way.
1992 Olympic gold medallist and two-time Olympian
What I admired about Kathleen is that she was gracious, kind, humble, consistent and committed to excellence. She was an inspirational athlete and human being and was the core of an amazing group of women who achieved incredible things.
1992 two-time Olympic gold medallist, three-time Olympian
I remember we were in Lucerne for the last World Cup before the 1996 Olympics. I had landed the job of Rowing Analyst with CBC who were doing the broadcast that year. CBC requested that I organize a solo interview with Kathleen, but I knew it would be difficult to get her to agree – she wouldn’t want to do it. She didn’t like the spotlight, preferring to let the camera train its eye on the rest of the team.
I remember thinking that I would have to try to make it as palatable and acceptable to Kathleen as possible so she would be comfortable and feel like it would occur on her terms. And so, I approached her tentatively with a few suggestions, but it wasn’t happening. I kept trying to assure her that it would be OK-that it wouldn’t be live- it would be recorded so we could re-do questions if she didn’t like her answers. And if she wanted, it would be me who interviewed her – no big studio set-up, no massive lights with multiple cameras.
It took a few days, but she finally relented and we did the interview. Just two friends, talking about rowing, talking about her partnership with Marnie, the racing, the competition and her hopes and dreams for these, her second Olympic games. She was rowing because she wanted to. She enjoyed it. She communicated with her mannerisms and how she carried herself who she was, what she believed and how she approached life. She was quiet and reserved but certain of who she was. And she communicated her stature by her answers in the respect she showed her teammates and her competition. I can’t even remember what she said, but I remember feeling gratitude & pride – gratitude that she trusted me enough to agree to the interview and so proud of my awesome teammate who was so, so talented. I knew it was hard for her, but she got to a place in her mind where she agreed to do it. And I thought it was so wonderful that Canadians would get to know just a little bit more about her. I was so grateful to Kathleen, my dear friend who made me the hero that day, because I got the interview.
The personal attribute that stands out for me about Kathleen was her quiet determination. I can picture in my mind’s eye sitting with her in a team meeting. She might reach over and quietly just lightly touch your arm and say something softly either agreeing with you (underscoring that she heard what you had to say) or offering you a counterpoint to the information you had just shared (again-underscoring that she had heard what you had to say, but maybe hadn’t considered whatever point she was making). It was always offered quietly and never did you feel ‘challenged’ if she took the opposite view. Just that, she felt something important enough to be said.
Two-time Olympic gold medallist
What really sticks out in my mind more than a story is Kathleen’s power in the boat, especially her hip acceleration through the middle of the drive. Al (Morrow) used her stroke as the model for that dynamic hip drive that became one of the hallmarks of the 1992 women’s eight and women’s pair. I remember watching videos of her, trying to imprint that image of dynamic hip drive in my mind so I could replicate it in the boat.
Kathleen also had a core of steel. She didn’t flaunt it or talk about it, nor did she hide it. You just knew it was there whether you rowed with her or against her (and woe to anyone who underestimated her!) She didn’t go looking for battles, but she was no pushover. She had a clear sense of her priorities. She was unassuming – self-assured but not self-important – purposeful and determined. And she didn’t make a fuss, she just did it.
Olympic champion, FISA Athletes Council and FISA Thomas Kellar Medal committee member
Every so often, an athlete comes along, who is able to completely dominate the sport, not only in their country but also on the world stage. Kathleen Heddle was just such a person. But more than that, this woman achieved everything with a quiet humility.
This quiet and private person was able to assert her presence with her physical dominance of any training piece, of any length. It was not perhaps surprising that an introvert like Heddle would strike up a successful partnership with one of the most mercurial women in the Canadian squad, Marnie McBean.
Her calmness during the summer of 1992, when the Canadian eight lost their stroke-woman through a back injury, was a major factor in the crew finding its confidence again. The gift of Heddle to spread calmness amongst those around her was recognised by the Canadian rowers when they elected her to be a FISA Athletes Commission representative in 1997.
Throughout all her work, Kathleen Heddle was good company, with at times, a wonderful sense of humour. She was awarded the Thomas Keller medal in St Catharines during the 1999 World Championships. Then, she spoke with great dignity, thanking all those that had helped her throughout her career.
Two-time Olympic medallist (gold and silver)
My fondest memory is training with and against Kathleen and Marnie when they were in the double and I was in the single. We did lots of “pieces” back and forth on Lake Fanshaw – “castles” and “ladders” at varying rates. Kathleen was always the picture of ‘poetry in motion’ backing up the fierce competitor that is Marnie in stroke seat. I could always tell how hard Kathleen was pulling by how much her pony-tail moved at the finish of her strokes. She was otherwise, so smooth and graceful, that that was the ONLY way I could tell…aside from their amazing boat speed. I admired her great laugh and fifty other qualities of an incredible athlete and person.
Two-time Olympic gold medallist
My fondest memory is the Sarnen chocolate heist but I would also say that of course it was to watch our women’s eight win the gold in Barcelona with Kathleen stroking in my place. I felt so proud to be part of a team that could rise up to be our best in the face of any amount of adversity.
Kathleen’s answer was always to ‘just go faster’. By that I mean, she did not rely on excuses or complaints. If something went wrong, the answer was to ‘get better’ not come up with explanations and use those as excuses. An explanation is fine, but it is not an excuse. It is important to analyze a loss or failure only in order to learn from it, not in order to excuse it.
Kathleen was seriously gifted in terms of technique, size, strength, and aerobic capacity – equal to Silken – but she also worked extremely hard – she was that ‘talent who trains’ example which is unstoppable.
Many speak of her grace and I think that word captures exactly how she competed. She upheld the principle of personal excellence so completely and unwaveringly that she simply embodied the gold standard of athleticism.
The fact that such a humble, quiet, intrinsic person could be so internationally celebrated across sectors speaks to the power of her principle centered leadership. One need not be showy or demonstrative in order to achieve impact and reach.
Former National Team member
My fondest memory was arranging her and Mike (Kathleen’s husband) getting together in the first place. Mike, his bother Pat, and I were roommates while Colleen Miller roomed with Kathleen. The amount of mental energy dedicated to getting their first date to come about FAR exceeded any efforts made at Elk Lake. Pat and I felt we were feeding Mike the romantic wisdom of the ages. Thankfully, Colleen was at the other end probably saying to Kathleen; “God only knows what sort of incoherent drivel those three will come up with but if he asks you out, just say yes, set the date and hang up the phone.” And the rest is history.
She was the most modest accomplished person I’ve ever known. You would never know she had ever won anything, much less Olympic medals.
Eeke van Nes
Three-time Olympic medallist, Netherlands
In 1995 and 1996 I had the privilege to compete against Kathleen and Marnie. The 2x race in 1995 is still a vivid memory. We led the whole race and the last stroke of the race they passed us. When we congratulated Kathleen she said to us: “we feel like we stole it from you”. We were still unsatisfied that we lost, but this comment was such a nice gesture.
She was a great role model. In 1995 and 1996, we lost against great champions. I’m sorry Kathleen couldn’t win the battle against cancer. I wish her loved ones al the strength in this difficult time.
Former National Team member
I have many fond memories of Kathleen, certainly several from the time I spent in awe of her athletic capabilities as a teammate of hers on the National Rowing Team. But, in the days immediately following her passing, I am struck by how my thoughts have gravitated to her as a mother. Her loving dedication to her family, the joy she showed in raising her children and her humble pride in their growth and accomplishments. Also, her true and deep friendship with her husband always came shining through in her sense of humour and the obvious fun they had together! Through my friendship with Mike, I have many happy memories of small moments shared with Kathleen in the daily context of building a home and family, and although they might not transcend to others, they’re deeply meaningful to me at this time. I suspect many of her close friends will know of this experience with Kathleen and will connect with her uncanny ability to share with you a knowing glance in these moments that simply said “I’m there with you” or “I know what you’re going through”. Today, this is my fondest connection with Kathleen.
Kathleen was the absolute personification of quiet strength. In the noisy world we live in, humbleness is a rarely lauded attribute in people who have achieved great things athletically. Kathleen’s humbleness in light of her achievements is truly remarkable. It sets her apart from a great many athletes and deserves our undying admiration. You only ever got one version of Kathleen. I loved that about her. She was such a true, honest person. Sport in Canada has suffered a very deep loss in her passing.
German women’s pair, Olympic silver medallist, 1992 Barcelona
Kathleen was a great person and rowing colleague. Her presence on the regatta course was a class above the rest: always calm and reflective. In 1991 and 1992, Kathleen was almost unbeatable together with Marnie.
I am happy, grateful and proud to be a part of her story. I was last able to meet her in Boston in 2019 at the Head of the Charles. I am now immensely happy that we were able to spend time together there once again. I am happy and proud to have been part of her life.
Former National Team Head Coach
Like everybody I have been very saddened by the news about Kathleen. Such a wonderful person who was a very high achiever in many ways. An extremely good team person who put other people before her all the time even though she deserved to be front and center. I felt very privileged to have been able to work with her during part of her amazing athletic career.
One of my many treasured memories of Kathleen apart from those amazing international rowing performances was during the ‘Speed Order Trials’ on Elk lake in November 1995. These were the trials to decide who would be in the training squad for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Kathleen was of course aiming for selection in the women’s double with Marnie McBean. Athletes at that time would remember with the help of the local clubs, we had setup a buoyed course finishing at the club house end of the lake. It was only 1850m long instead of the 2000m but it worked well and gave spectators a good look at the racing.
A day or two before the racing started, Kathleen was on the course doing some steady state work when I noticed she was rowing in a lane next to a lightweight male sculler training. She was rowing about 3 to 4 boat lengths ahead of him. He would look over his shoulder at Kathleen every now and again to see if he was catching her. What he didn’t realize was that when he wasn’t looking she would pull extremely hard through the water and of course stay in front. Then when he did look again, she would drop the power and smile at him! It was great to see how competitive Kathleen was without making a fuss. Very cheeky indeed!! Once off the water she didn’t say anything or make a fuss about it. She just did it!
As for Kathleen’s personal attributes I have already mentioned her selfless attitude. Kathleen was fantastic to coach because there were no excuses, only solutions and of course she had wonderful motor skills. This meant that technical changes to her rowing were easy and made you feel like a great coach.
She was always great to have around the team because of the professional example she set for other athletes with great focus and attitude.
2008 Olympic silver medallist and four-time Olympian
Kathleen was the ultimate role model for any Canadian rower. As a junior I watched her and her teammates dominate the world, and my own lofty dreams of what my rowing career could look like started to develop. I remember charting my course to winning multiple Olympic Gold Medals, but it turns out that Kathleen made it look a lot easier than it actually was.
I was 16 the first time I trained in London. The women’s coach was responsible for the junior program that year too. I remember sitting in a team meeting, listening, but looking around the room in awe of the women I had only known from TV. My eyes stopped at Kathleen, the woman I knew best from the back cover of the RCA Magazine!
The women’s program went out for a training session while the juniors set up our boats. By the time we got to the dock the women were on their way back in. We hurried to launch and avoid them, Kathleen at the lead. In our rush we hadn’t noticed our oars were on the wrong sides! Kathleen and her partner had already docked and were getting out of their boat. I was so embarrassed, and I tried to avoid eye contact as I looked for an opening on the dock to return to. Kathleen made room for us, and instead of judgement, our wordless exchange told me that I was going to be okay.
Kathleen is central to the lore of the Canadian rower. Her fierceness and determination to every stroke, every action, is something to be emulated, but her modest, understated approach to being the very best in the world, to being an Olympic Champion, teaches all who come after her that to be humble in greatness is to be Canadian.
In 1996 I trained in Ireland ahead of the Juniors. We thought that we had a chance to win the pair, but we were pretty insecure. We spent a day off in Dublin and just happened to go into a TV shop at the exact moment that every TV was tuned to the start of Kathleen’s Atlanta 2X final. We watched as she won her third Olympic Gold Medal, reminding me that, yes, in fact, we too could win our race if we trained like she did, kept our heads down like she did, and raced like she did. Her race gave us the confidence we needed.
Thank you, Kathleen, for all that you taught me.
2018 World Champion
Kathleen Heddle was an inspiration to me throughout my career. As someone who started rowing at UBC, just as Kathleen did, I took pride in being on the team that produced one of Canada’s most decorated Olympians. Her international success and lasting legacy allowed me to believe that it was possible to become amongst the best in the world, starting from right where I was.
I was lucky enough to meet Kathleen a few times, and I was struck by her humility and genuine kindness. Her love for the sport shone through her interactions with others, whether they were her friends and former teammates, or just admirers like myself. She carried herself with a quiet confidence. I am grateful to her for showing everyone that you don’t need to be the loudest voice in a room, or in a boat, to be a leader, accomplish incredible things and live a remarkable life.
This summer will mark 25 years since Canadian women have stood on the top step on the podium at the Olympics, as Kathleen and Marnie did in Atlanta. I can’t think of a better way to honour Kathleen’s legacy than to aim for the same feat.
My heartfelt condolences go out to her family and those that knew her best. Please know that Kathleen will continue to inspire for many years to come.
2016 Rio Olympian
I was lucky enough to have the same coach as Kathleen for my first few years on the Canadian Senior National Team. As everyone knows, Coach Al Morrow has a story for every scenario and story’s about Kathleen were among his best. They inspired me to be a better teammate but more importantly challenged me to be a better person. The first time that I was lucky enough to meet Kathleen was in 2016 at a UBC Rowing event. I was so excited to ask her about a few of these legendary stories, but she only wanted to hear about how my rowing was going. She is truly one of the most humble people I have ever met. Kathleen is someone who exempted and embodied tremendous Canadian virtues of empathy, sportsmanship, and determination. She is an icon not only for the Canadian rowing community but for Canadian sport as a whole. She will be missed, but certainly not forgotten.
Kathleen’s wish was to donate of one of her Olympic gold medals (Atlanta 1996) as a tribute to the oncology team and ward at Lions Gate Hospital. Her Olympic gold medal will be displayed to help provide inspiration and hope to those with cancer who will also arrive at Lions Gate Hospital scared and in need of support. Kathleen wanted to let other patients and families know they are never alone in their fight and will be in the caring hands of an outstanding and wonderful team of people at Lions Gate Hospital.
Lions Gate Hospital Foundation: https://lghfoundation.com/tributes/kathleen-heddle/
BC Cancer Agency: http://www.bccancer.bc.ca/donate
Photos: Canadian Olympic Committee, Jennifer Walinga, Inge Schwerzmann