I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my past racing career. Call it a mid-life crisis if you want, but I have an urge to get some things down in a permanent form. So in that spirit, I’d like to start a small series of posts related to what I think of as my Breakthrough Races. I have always been surprised at the number of people I trained with who could compete in training on a daily basis but who either completely folded on race day or who were never able to come through with a spectacular performance when it counted. But the more I think about it the more I realize that at certain times in my career I was the same way. There was a time when it seemed inconceivable that I would beat Larry Cain, or come close to Andreas Dittmer, but a breakthrough race changed those perceptions and therefore changed the way I thought about myself and shaped my future as a canoer.
As a kid, I generally had a pretty easy time. Sure I lost a few big races (Greg Carter in bantam Boys C-1!) and was disqualified at my first Nationals race (Midget C1 in Toronto 1986), but I generally won what I wanted to up until I was a junior. The 1989 Junior Worlds was an eye opener for me. I was thoroughly tromped on by the East German, an embarrasment that was nicely cushioned by the fact that I still managed to come out with a bronze medal. That I could not come close to winning an international race was a sobering realization for me, and I will admit that I came into 1990 a much humbled man.
It was my first race against the Seniors at the trials, though I was technically still a Junior at 18 years old. The favorite in the race of course was Larry Cain. Anyone who doesn’t know Larry and his long list of accomplishments should probably leave this site and never return, and I will not attempt to provide a complete list here. I will say two things about Larry though. It was his 1984 Gold Medal race in Los Angeles that inspired me when I was 12 years old, and in 1990 he was coming back from his best ever World Championship result, a Silver in the C1 1000m. Going into the trials he was a legend in my mind and completely unbeatable.
Tony had other ideas. We did not spend a lot of time discussing the possibility. Actually I cannot remember a single instance in training when Tony said to me that he thought that I could win the trials, or even be in the top 5. We just never discussed results. But just before the final he said some things that made all the difference. I had surprised myself by qualifying first out of my semi-final. The result had put me into lane 5 (the joke of the day was that Larry would be panicked because he only ever brought #5 boat numbers and so would have to scramble to find a #6 to put on his boat). I would be next to Larry and I imagined that a good solid race would give me a second place finish. Just before the final Tony said to me:
“Steve, Larry always does his mid-race pick up before the 500m mark. I want you to go with him with 600m to go, then go again at the 500m. Then see what happens. And remember, dare to be great.”
So, the start went as planned and Larry and I got into a lead over the pack. with 600 to go I went hard for about 10 strokes. Then I cruised the next 100m and at the half way point I took off for the hardest 50m of the race. I blew open a boat length lead and Larry was beaten. The rest of the race was hard, but there were no more challenges. I had done the impossible and beaten my childhood hero Larry Cain.
Now, I found out later that Larry was not 100% healthy. Who knows what might have happened had he been ready to race. As I will detail later in this series we had some great battles over the next three years. But my mental image of myself had been changed forever. I was now as good as Larry, and I could compete with the best in the World. Over the next 14 years I would lose only three 1000m races at Canadian trials or Nationals, and only one Canadian (Larry) would ever beat me in an international 1000. The mental breakthrough that I made on that day helped give me the confidence to be a champion.