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A small crowd gathered at Burnaby Lake Thursday to watch the Canadian Olympic rowing teams go through the paces as they trained in preparation for the London Games later this month.
The sun had finally emerged from its early summer slumber and there was nothing but a gentle breeze and birds to distract the highly-tuned athletes.
After coming out of the water and, as his rowers obliged with autographs on posters and t-shirts for a half dozen teenaged fans, Mike Spracklen, coach of the men's eights, was asked by a NewsLeader reporter how Burnaby Lake compared to other training facilities they've used.
Spracklen didn't hesitate.
"Well it's by far the best anywhere. Nowhere in Canada is there a designated rowing centre. We are the only country in the world, up until Burnaby was here, that don't have a designated rowing centre. Even the developing countries have a training facility for rowing. Canada doesn't—until Burnaby.
"We share our water on Elk Lake [in Victoria] with powerboaters, waterskiers, fisherman, universities, colleges, masters you name it, they're out on the lake and we go in and out and we thread our way through them to do our training. No other country has to do that so we welcome coming here, this has been a blessing, yes."
The two days they trained at Burnaby Lake gave them a taste of what their main competition—the British, Americans, Germans, Australians and Italians—enjoy year round, he said. "At least we get it for two days."
It was quite an endorsement for Burnaby Lake, the site of a $20.5-million dredging project, cost-shared between Burnaby city hall and the province, which was completed last year.
Malcolm Howard, a gold medalist with the men's eights at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and captain of this year's team, recalled being on Burnaby Lake in 2007.
"It was rowable but there wasn't a lot of water to use," said Howard. "There was a small strip of water you could row on but you couldn't row an eight here ... There was just so much growth [of vegetation]."
Howard returned last year shortly after dredging was completed. "I couldn't believe the change. It was just so much nicer and there's open water we could use, and coming here now, close to the Games, it's been perfect. There's no other courses in the world that are anything like this."
Burnaby Lake has been good preparation for the course they'll face at the London Games, which run July 27 to Aug. 12.
Andrew Byrnes, also a returning gold medal winner in the men's eights, called the 2,000-metre course "a perfect simulation of what we go through when we're overseas competing."
Unlike Elk Lake, there are no motorboats allowed, and it's fairly sheltered by the trees. "It makes for pretty calm, flat water, which is really excellent, it's the best for training and racing."
Through a partnership with the Burnaby Lake Rowing Club, the lake is now a National Development Centre for Rowing Canada.
"I think it's going to be a great centre for up-and-coming athletes and into the next Olympics I can definitely see one or two boats coming here, using this as a permanent site," said Howard, who personally thanked Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan Thursday for the city's dredging efforts.
While it was all music to Corrigan's ears, he stressed the dredging was done for environmental reasons "to preserve the lake for posterity" after years of being slowly filled in by sediment.
Because of the environmental concerns for the lake, power boats and other such uses are banned, he noted. Activities such as rowing are uses complementary to the environmental values of the lake, giving it a utility beyond just its beauty.
Having Olympians training there is great for Burnaby's image and shows that its sports facilities are "unparalleled," Corrigan said. "I think it inspires young kids in our community to become involved in these sports."
He added, "I hope in the future we can redevelop the facilities here to make it a world class training facility and one that's utilized by the Olympic team on a regular basis," noting the region is one of the few places in Canada where training can happen year round.
As for the team, they are next headed to Italy for further training leading up to the London Games.
"We won the gold in Beijing," said Byrnes. "This crew going in is seat for seat, more powerful than that crew. We certainly have the potential to win and continue Canada's winning tradition in rowing."
Spracklen is also pretty positive about Canada's chances in the men's eights.
"The crew is capable of winning. The standard is higher, it's higher than it was in Beijing. But these guys are stronger too and yes, we do have a very good chance of winning.
"Put it this way: we would be disappointed if we come second."