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An Olympic dream interrupted

Deb Merchant is presented with a special medal by Richard Pound, as a member of the 1980 Canadian Olympic rowing team, which wasn’t actually able to compete because of the boycott of the Games that year. - PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
Deb Merchant is presented with a special medal by Richard Pound, as a member of the 1980 Canadian Olympic rowing team, which wasn’t actually able to compete because of the boycott of the Games that year.
— image credit: PHOTO CONTRIBUTED

Deb Merchant’s Olympic dream was more like an interrupted nightmare.

The Burnaby woman was the coxswain for Canada’s quad sculls rowing team in 1980. She’d only been introduced to the sport three years earlier, as a coxin, or rookie helmsman, for the UBC Thunderbirds heavyweight men’s crew.

Three summers later she was part of the Canadian Olympic Rowing Team, dipping their blades, which had been painted to look like the Canadian flag, into Lake Rotsee in Lucerne, Switzerland.

But the global political situation that year was nowhere near as calm and idyllic as the rowing course on that Swiss lake. Late in 1979, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. As troops poured into the landlocked country, international outrage grew. With the 1980 Summer Games scheduled to begin July 19 in Moscow, a number of countries, led by the United States, targeted their wrath over the invasion at the Soviet’s Olympic showcase. By the time the Olympic cauldron was lit in the Luzhniki Stadium, 65 countries had decided not to participate in the Games. Canada was one of them.

Instead the whole team gathered in Toronto in August for a special Olympic tribute, and the athletes were presented with medals by Richard Pound, the president of the Canadian Olympic Association.

Merchant didn’t let the boycott deter her athletic dreams for too long, though. She got back in the boat to train for the World Championships and then returned to her studies at UBC in Rehabilitation Medicine.

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