Q&A: Marnie McBean on Olympic memories, staying jacked, athlete funding

Marnie-McBean

Marnie McBean, a three time Olympic gold medalist in rowing, speaks after being named the Olympic chef de mission for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games. (Justin Tang/CP)

It’s been 20 years since Marnie McBean competed internationally. And yet the legendary rower still has biceps big enough to stretch her shirt-sleeves as we sit on a plush couch in her living room in Toronto.

Last summer, McBean was named Canada’s Chef De Mission for the upcoming 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. And really, who’s more qualified to be Team Canada’s leader and supporter and promoter than the three-time Olympic gold medallist from Vancouver who’s been involved in nine Olympics so far in a variety of roles? Chef is the next natural step.

McBean, 52, spoke to Sportsnet about her role coming up in Tokyo, her incredible career on the water, her sweet Pert Plus commercial back in the day, the lack of financial support for amateur athletes then and now, how the rowing team helped change the perception of female athletes at the 1992 Olympics, and the impact of the Games on its participants.

SPORTSNET: Where are your gold medals?
Marnie McBean: You know that drawer in your house in the kitchen where everything goes?

The junk drawer?
Yes.

Oh my gosh. I think that’s actually worse than the sock drawer. (An astonishing number of Olympians say they keep their medals in their sock drawer.)
[Laughs.] Well, they’re easy to get to. So they’re in the kitchen — we call it a “stuff drawer.” It’s the one that has tools and things on one side…

And your medals.
The Olympic medals. I think in the basement there’s a flood-proof Tupperware that’s got a box full of all my other medals.

How many medals do you figure you have?
I only know this because I had friends visit from Spain and they wanted to try to entertain their kids. They counted, and there was 123 medals or something like that.

Wow. I’ve seen your basement (it contains a punching bag and lots of workout gear), so I think I know the answer. But how are you still jacked when you haven’t raced competitively, correct me if I’m wrong, in nearly 20 years?
Well, I haven’t raced at that level.… I still do a masters competition every fall. So usually August to October I row and in the spring I do a lot of cycling…. In the fall, my ego is too huge (for me) to be out of shape when I go to a rowing race. And then I have a four-year-old, so I’m still tossing her around quite a bit.

And you punch the bag downstairs?
I used to do boxercise. I loved it. I loved going to Centre Ring with Wayne Bourque. He was pretty good at getting me back into shape when I had sort of let myself go.

You did let yourself go?
Yeah, I did.

That’s good to hear. Can you do any sports or workouts casually? Or does a casual run turn into an all-out sprint?
No, I am a rower. I’m really lucky I found rowing. I’m in the category of Clydesdales when it comes to running. Most other sports when I do them, I can be in my happy place just plugging away — running, but it’s not going to be fast. I remember when I came back and I did triathlons…. I got passed a lot when I was running, and then people would sort of look at me as they were coming into the last couple 100 metres and they’d realize who they were passing, and they’re like, “I beat Marnie McBean!” And I’d be like, “Let’s go rowing!” [Laughs.]

If you and Kathleen Heddle (McBean’s rowing partner for all three Olympic gold medals) teamed up today for a 2,000-metre race, how long do you think it would take you?
We’d probably stop in the middle and start talking.… I don’t even know how slow we’d be right now. Technically, it would look really good.

Congratulations on the Chef role. I don’t know much about how you would get that role – do you apply, or does someone put your name forward?
Very much like the queen, I was born into it.

It seems that way.
[Laughs.] No, not at all. It is an application. The Canadian Olympic Committee posts it. It’s generally a role that is for people who’ve been to the Olympics, Pan Am athletes, or within the high-performance sport environment…. I also was aware that the position was coming up. I think since 2007, before the Beijing Olympics, when I started giving back, when I started getting involved with the teams and stuff, I was sort of thinking that it was going to be a role that I wanted to do. It is a volunteer position and what I did first, I was full-time with the Canadian Olympic committee. I really liked my title there — I was a Specialist in Olympic Athlete Preparation and Mentoring.

Did they invent that for you?
I did, of course. [Laughs.] It was a cooperative title creation, but I liked it. You can’t be chef and staff at the same time, so I sort of had to wait until I had done everything I wanted to do in that staff position, and for a couple of reasons I stepped away from staff in 2014. Majorly, to start a family. And now I’m working my way back and not staff, and so I put my name in and was pretty proud of the CV, what I was able to put on my resumé.

Tokyo will be your 10th Olympics. Have you wrapped your head around that?
It’s super cool… but, yeah, it’s all these different roles. I went to Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney as an athlete, and then I went to Greece doing the commentary for rowing. 2006, ‘08, ‘10, ’14, I went as the specialist in Olympic athlete preparation and mentoring. And now here I am on Games 10 for Tokyo.

Can you describe this Chef role and what it entails?
It’s an [International Olympic Committee] role as head of delegation and I will be a decision-maker on many of the committees that I’ll be included in. And in practice for the most part, I’ll be mentoring the athletes, an ambassador and a spokesperson. As we get closer to the Games, I think I’m the go-to spokesperson. My observation is I’m the go-to spokesperson until the first Canadian wins a medal. And then from that moment on, the only people that anybody wants to talk to are the athletes, and the athletes that are winning the medals, which is the way it should be.

I would think the most difficult part of your job in-Games will be, say you’ve got Penny Oleksiak in the pool and Andre De Grasse on the track and the women’s 8 are rowing, all at the same time. What do you go to?
No joking, that’s happened. Perdita Felicien and Alex Despatie both going at the same time and what do you do? There’s a lot going on at a summer Olympics. So I suppose in a sense I’ll be looking at the schedule as a 17-day thing … And it could be what I’m going to go do at that very moment is go watch a water polo game because maybe that’s a knockout game for Canada’s water polo team, right? So it’s not about being there for every medal moment. That’s gravy. I don’t change those moments. But when the Chef can show up and show a team that they’re as important as a marquee athlete, that’s pretty powerful stuff.

What’s the experience like when you’re actually sitting in the seat and winning the medal? In ’92, what was it like when you won that first gold?
Well, “sitting in the seat” I suppose for rowing is somewhat accurate, but it seems…

[Laughs.] Very lazy…. Sorry.
You’re just sitting there winning a medal. [Laughs.] And as much as I’m sitting in that seat, what I’m staring at in that race, it was the Americans, the French and Germans fighting it out for second, third and fourth, which is terrifying. And what Kathleen and I had always talked about is that is the scariest thing to be — in a battle with four boats for three medals. Because people do desperate things.… But we crossed the finish line and the first emotion that I felt just sitting there, as you say [laughs], the first emotion I felt was relief. Relief that we’d done it, that we hadn’t screwed up, that we’d done everything that we wanted to do in that race. And then the next thing is a package of elation and pain. Because it’s overwhelming. At that moment you cross the finish line and you stop, it’s the moment that you let your head sort of do a little body check of what’s going on. And the amount of lactic acid in our bodies was extraordinarily high and our lungs felt like they were on fire. A stress explosion in that it’s gone, the stress — it literally bursts on you.… It’s really, really painful. You kind of flop over… It was business, it was relief, it was elation and it was pain.

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Those ’92 Olympics in Barcelona, what was it like being part of a women’s rowing team that, for Canada, dominated the discussion?
That was amazing. We won the women’s pair, the four, the eight, Silken Laumanm got the bronze medal in the women’s single and I think it changed the dialogue. It changed the dialogue about women in sport. Before that, and even about Silken at world championships, she would be described more superficially. She’s so incredibly powerful and strong but the papers, people weren’t ready for that. So they would describe her as a Nordic with blue eyes, 100-watt smile and all this sort of stuff, and it was completely missing the point of what made Silken an extraordinary athlete. And then we came along and pretty much in all these different shapes of woman [laugh], some of us were shorter, taller, some were skinnier, some were broader and we were articulate … Journalists weren’t afraid to cover us and talk about us as competitive and aggressive and strong.

I’m sure after ’92 and you win two Olympic gold medals, your financial situation changed dramatically as well.
[Laughs.] What makes you so sure about that?

You had endorsements, right, after that?
Because companies have post-Olympic budgets?

Oh. They don’t?
There’s no such thing as a post-Olympic budget. Unless you were a sponsored athlete going into the Olympics, and you have it set up as a performance bonus, you don’t get anything. I didn’t get anything. I had this conversation with the Romanians — it was pretty funny actually — in ’93…. They’re like, “Marnie, Marnie, two gold medals, how much money?” And I’m like, “No, no.” [Laughs.] I know in Spain they got a million dollars for each gold medal.… I’m like, “Nope, I didn’t get any money. Our sport, nope, no sponsors. I didn’t get any money.” They giggled and they go and they talk to themselves in Romanian and then finally the English emissary comes back and goes, “Marnie, Marnie. Why you row?” [Laughs.] And then I said, “Because I love it!” Which they all understood…. So, ’92, I had nothing. But I got with a new agent.

That was the problem!
Well, I didn’t have one before and then I did. Curt Harnett had done the Pert Plus commercial.

Great hair.
Great hair. It had done so well they wanted to feature someone else. So in mid ’92 or ’93, somewhere in there, I did the Pert Plus commercial and I got paid for doing that.

Do you still use Pert Plus?
They don’t even make it. “But I have tried some separate shampoo and conditioners and they left my hair coarse and limp. If you want your hair to be softer and fuller, try new Pert Plus revitalizing formula. Breakthrough care for permed and colour-treated hair.”

[Laughs.] You do have great hair.
Between ’94 and ’96, I would say financially things changed for me a little bit because I was a world and Olympic champion, and we signed contracts. When Kathleen and I won the world championships in ’95, now we’re the world and Olympic champions — pre-Olympic world champions going into the Olympics…. That went well for me. That said, when I talk about sponsorship going well, most of my contracts were probably less than a tenth of what someone like Donovan Bailey made. He was going to be signing international contracts for an internationally followed sport. And I’m a Canadian female rower.

Did the female part matter?
I think it did. Yeah, for sure I think it did.

Ugh. Did that frustrate you?
For sure. But at the same time I was very happy – I had a car. [Laughs.] I was getting to pay my bills and I thought that was pretty cool. I had no debt.

Back when you started out, how were you making ends meet?
Probably until 1990 I worked at a bar in London, Ont. I bussed tables at The Ceeps.

No way. The Ceeps was my favourite university bar.
I was the first female hired to work at The Ceeps. There was always women who were hired to work at Barney’s, but I was the first hired specifically to work at The Ceeps…. [The owner] felt like I was strong enough to get through the room with a tray.

Do you think it’s easier today to find funding for amateur athletes, or are there similar hurdles?
I think it’s similar hurdles. There’s some elements where it’s easier for athletes to put together, like, “Okay, this is what I need — it’s going to cost me $2,800 and I’m going to do crowd funding for it.” Getting renewable funding is harder.… But the national sports federations like Rowing Canada or Bobsleigh Canada or Wrestling Canada, Swimming Canada, I think they don’t have enough sponsorship. And when that happens they end up giving user-pay programs to the athletes where they have to pay for going to competitions or equipment, facilities. You don’t get the coaches that you want. If the national federations aren’t properly funded, it doesn’t matter how well the athletes are funded.

Marnie McBean powers her way to gold in women’s single sculls at the 1999 Pan American Games. (Frank Gunn/CP)

After 1996 (McBean won her third gold medal in double sculls, and a bronze in quadruple sculls), would you say your notoriety was at its height? Were you getting recognized, asked for autographs?
I’m trying to think if it was the most after ’96. 2000 was pretty good, enough that after 2004 I wasn’t even going to the Olympics as an athlete, but people were still wishing me good luck. I’d walk down the street and people would be like, “Good luck — the Olympics are coming up!” I’m like, “Thanks! Kind of been retired for four years, but I’ll take it.” For sure coming home after ’96 that was probably the high-water mark of walking down the street and people recognizing me — recognized my face, recognized my name.

Heading into Sydney and the 2000 Olympics, Kathleen had retired and you planned on single sculls. But you had to withdraw with a back injury. What was that experience like?
I remember being on the water, and it was like a tsunami of pain came through. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t do anything…. I got in to have an MRI…. The doctor said, “The bad news is that you’ve got two discs that are extremely protruding, one is likely ruptured. And the really bad news is this isn’t something that fixes in three weeks, like between now and the Olympics.” So then all the decision making went into withdrawing from the competition…. I was in such a lucky position in that I already had four Olympic medals at home and none of my decision-making had to be made on desperate measures. I could think, “Well, I want to have a kid one day and I want to be able to play physically with my kid and I want to be able to continue to have a really physical lifestyle, so I don’t want to try desperate measures, I don’t want to try cortisone shots.”

Did you know at that point you were going to retire?
I guess I’d been thinking before I went to those Olympics — I was mostly likely going to retire after Sydney. But everyone says that…. You get so emotionally beat up and fatigued by the process of getting to the Olympics, usually for summer athletes I think you kind of hate your sport by May.

Did you?
I know in ’96, for sure. It’s so much work and it’s so much stress. It’s like, “Ah, is this actually fun anymore?” And then you finish your race and you’re like, “Whew, let’s do it again!” [Laughs.] Now I actually know this to be true — well, sort of — but there’s a reason that women forget the pain of childbirth: so they do it again. But if you ask any woman who’s in the process of delivery, “Do you want to do this again?” You get a pretty definite no. But an hour later you’re like, “Oh, let’s do this again — such love, it’s amazing.” [Laughs.] I think an Olympic journey is similar.

You do a lot of speaking, and I watched a couple of your presentations on YouTube. I think you could convince people to run through a wall. But in one of those presentations, you relayed that an older Olympian had told you that to feel the impact of an Olympic Games, it could take 30 years. At this point do you feel like you can articulate the impact the Games have had on you?
Oh, boy. That’s a good one…. I think I came home from Barcelona and what did I know about impact? I haven’t even stopped [being involved in the Olympics]…. (Now) I am almost 30 years from Barcelona. I guess that would be a whole other long answer and I’d have to probably talk circles around it until I landed on what the answer is and what the impact of the Olympics have been on me.

Maybe I would come out with a five-point answer that would go with the five different rings. Something that would give me more leeway to have more than one answer, because I think that’s the thing you realize — it’s not just one thing. It’s not just a social answer or a cultural answer, possibly a spiritual answer. It’s kind of like when people ask me what’s my favourite Olympic memory. My favourite Olympic memory is different on different days…. Does being a champion feel like it’s an important thing to me on a day? Or is it my Sydney experience? The important lesson I learned there was I needed help. I went from being this extraordinarily independent and strong woman to needing help. Like, if I dropped a fork at my feet I would have to ask someone to pick that up for me. I realized for the first time how kind people can be if you let them.

There’s stuff like that that I’ve had the chance to learn at Olympics. I’ve learned it doesn’t go well when I think I’m the centre of the universe, so it’s better for me to be more open. But I’ve also learned I need to be able to focus and not be distracted by things…. And these are life lessons that carry over to everything else that you do and you want to accomplish. How does a team resonate as Team Canada and how does an individual resonate as Team Canada and why is it important? Being around the Olympics, being around Team Canada, being around all the international people who are around the Olympics would also contribute to another answer. The Olympics without question gave me a very global perspective on anything and everything. I don’t even know if that was four rings.

But on my fifth ring answer, it would be: You’re incredibly lucky when you find something that gives you a lifelong passion. And I think I feel that way.

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