In times of impermanence, Marnie McBean’s resolution is evergreen.
As Team Canada’s chef de mission for the 2020 Olympic Games, the former rower and perennial athlete mentor has been constantly adapting her leadership style and message since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020 — all while she and her partner, Deanah Shelly, and their five-year-old daughter, Isabel, strive to find the balance of life at their home in Toronto.
McBean is a leader by nature. Her stellar partnership with Kathleen Heddle led to three Olympic gold medals, a record for Canadian Summer Games athletes that stands to this day. A quarter-century after the pair’s last gold — a Double Sculls thriller at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics — this year will be the first time McBean can’t pick up the phone and call her former rowing partner during the Games. Heddle passed away in January, at 55, after a battle with cancer, leaving McBean with fond memories and an occasionally overwhelming legacy.
Now, McBean is headed for Tokyo knowing she’s exactly where she needs to be. Rowing has taught her that goals aren’t always achieved by following a straight line.
From her basement — because her daughter had taken over the upstairs level during school hours — McBean spoke about coming out after retirement, the many adjustments she had to make as Canada’s chef de mission and how meaningful it will be to watch the pairs rowing competition at the Olympics this year.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
SPORTSNET: As chef de mission, how are the preparations for the Olympics? I’m sure it’ll be different than what you expected.
MARNIE MCBEAN: I think when I get to 14 days away from going to Tokyo, I’ll start getting into the easy bits, because it’s almost like when you’re traveling and you finally leave the house and whatever you’ve forgotten, you’ve forgotten. You’re in the pattern of going to the airport and traveling and all that stuff. So, 14 days is when I’ll start monitoring my close contacts and that sort of stuff, and then I’ll have a couple of tests to do. I can’t imagine what would derail the games at this point in time — I don’t even want to guess, because it’s that kind of year that it would actually happen.
The athletes are a group of rule followers, so they totally get the structure of doing this. And I think my expectations for Tokyo, there’s two sets: There’s the expectation of my experience as chef de mission and what do I expect from the team.
My experience, I think it’s going to be really weird, because this is this super cool gig, right? The chef de mission is a gig that I personally wanted since probably Beijing 2008. I was in the village, and Sylvie Bernier was the chef and Peter Giles was the assistant chef, and I was like, actually, I want Peter’s job, the assistant chef, because he did the assistant chef the way that we now do the chef job. It’s basically very athlete-facing. And it’s an infinity button.
As a journalist, you might have three sports that you get to cover. I’ve had that. But (this time) I was going to go with infinity — from the fancy levels to the athlete field-of-play levels. Infinity everywhere. Now we’re still going to be discovering what that means.
I know I’m going to be in the Olympic Village. We don’t have an athlete lounge, which historically I always thought was a great place for incidental and almost accidental conversations. (But) the thing I’ve learned about roles like mine, mentoring and stuff like that, is there’s often a really hidden impact. And the people you think you’re there to help, you might end up helping an entirely different population. And it makes a huge impact.
And from the team, I actually expect something kind of extraordinary. We have been in a vacuum of results, but in a surplus of training. I remember one of our athletics athletes in 2012. He was the world champion in shotput. And he was pretty sure he could get like a world-best throw at the Olympics, but he would have to stay home and train for it the whole time. Instead, he was going to go around Europe and do Diamond League and stuff like that and make an income that was going to support his family for decades.
So here they are. They’re now at home, with these incredible training blocks. I don’t know what their results are going to be, but I know that their performance is going to be extraordinary.
Did your mentality, your mindset as chef de mission, change at all with the postponement and the idea of no fans?
I had to reset everything. I was selected as chef in July 2019. And I remember thinking I didn’t have enough time to talk about the Olympics, about believing in yourself and reaching for the podium. I believe in a philosophy of “more.” More that I can do, more that I can learn, more that I can be, more that I can try. I learned it in sport, but I realize it applies to everything. It applies to relationships, career, hobbies. It applies to my own personal health. And not in an anxious way of more — like, you can be good with nothing because it depends how you crave “more.” It depends on the amount of ambition you applied to the goal.
But if your ambition is ramping up, you care a lot about “more” anyways. So, I’m like, Okay, I don’t have enough time to talk about that.
In January we realized there was something going on. In February I had a trip to Japan canceled already.
When we got to the decision-making in March, it was like, we can’t just be there walking along thinking we’re all good. Actually, Chicken Little kept saying the sky is falling. So, my messaging from March to May was probably more into care and comfort. “Stay at home, take care of your family. Thank you for organically embracing what we need to do.” I was this care-and-comfort person. If you ask most people who competed against me, those might not have been my strong suits when I was an athlete. But coming through to this side of it, having mentored for so long and also having my own family, it was definitely an easier voice to have.
Recently, I switched it up and started going, “Okay, look, there’s a Games coming up and we have to start talking about performance again — ramping back up.”
So, yes, I totally had to adjust my conversation. I took the concept of pushing “more” out, because you know what? They’re doing more all the time. They have recreated the wheel so many times in this pandemic. I don’t have to tell them to believe in more, because clearly they do. They are doing more, learning more, trying more and being more every day. And they have been for 15 months, if not the two years before that, through all the qualifying.
Now we’re into the fine tuning, and it’s kind of like, “Believe in perfect, but let perfect go. If you’re waiting for perfect, it’s never going to come. Unchain yourself from that burden and you’re on the right path — just believe in it.”
I love this campaign. You don't have to be an Olympian to be doing/contributing to something special. Our bigger Team Canada (all 37million) has always been doing incredible things. Thank you https://t.co/J51WzjIUxt
— Marnie McBean OC OLY (@MarnieMcB) June 14, 2021
When you talk about changing your message and slowing down, I see a little bit of that in rowing as well — especially in that 1996 Olympic gold medal race in Atlanta. You’ve got to know when to push, when to slow down, how to call the race. I wonder if that philosophy extrapolates sport and enters your life as well.
I guess so, for sure. If you make a mistake in rowing, what a rookie will do is they will get really flustered and drop down. They’ll take all that adrenaline they have from that moment where they kind of f— up, and they’ll spend it and then all of a sudden you’re in a deficit.
What you need to do is just recover. And just allow it. It happened. Recover, push on, reassess and get back to your race plan a little bit.
When you’re going down a lane, if you’ve got a crosswind, you actually don’t go straight and across. Your boat tracks on an angle the whole way. So, the lane is like a lane of a street only instead of a car going straight down, the car would be almost sideways, going straight down the road. And you’re going to be really comfortable with letting go, looking over here, but going perfectly straight. It’s messed up. But you have to have a lot of faith.
And I guess it goes to the relationship that you have with a partner, too. In that race that you’re watching, as I’m talking to Kathleen, it might look like I’m talking a lot, but we had single words that meant tons of stuff. A certain word or a phrase would mean a week, if not a whole year of training. It’s about trust.
In that race, we knew we’d put most of our energy in the middle of the race and we get way ahead of people. And that was how we always raced. We knew that the Dutch for sure, and the Chinese showed that, too, that they were going to be able to close the gap on us. And we just had to know that, you know, don’t let them do it, but don’t panic either. It’s a 2,000-metre race.
You mentioned your partnership and your trust with Kathleen. It’s been 25 years since that gold medal. If you’re comfortable talking about it, I wonder how it feels not having her here to celebrate and share this moment with you.
I am comfortable talking about it, but hold on — I had put some Kleenex around me earlier and the closer Kleenex is to me, the less likely I am to cry too much.
It’s kind of weird with the Olympics coming up and Kathleen not being around, because I would always call her up during the Olympics and, respectfully, we would always be like, “Why are other people making it look so hard?” Because we just saw ourselves as these two girls who kind of got together and rowed, and we beat everybody three times. And why can’t everybody else do that? So, it’s kind of a fun conversation for us to get together and go, “Oh my god.”
I’ve always said that part of my role as the mentor has been to… I need to strip myself of this title of Canada’s most successful summer Olympic athlete. Somebody’s got to win four gold medals. Please, somebody win four gold medals because then somebody will win five and then someone will six and seven and eight. And I think Canadians are so capable of it.
I would love to see that. That would be a huge thing for me as a chef to just see me go from this title that’s lasted for 25 years that Kathleen and I have shared. I think it’s time to go.
And then, you know, now that I’m thinking about it specifically, probably watching the double and the pair race (in Tokyo) will mean a lot more this time.
When you think back to that race, 25 years later, what does it mean to you to have won that medal with so many Canadian fans and your families there?
Atlanta was very much like a home Games, because it’s so close. There was (also) a grandstand of 30,000 people watching rowing, which is probably one of the bigger grandstands we’ve had. A huge contingent of Canadians had come down to watch — that was pretty awesome.
But when I think about that campaign, like the whole campaign for Team Canada, because it was an extraordinary team, it wasn’t just Kathleen and I…. When I think about the medal, when I show people the medal, it’s really not that moment that is my fondest memory of the whole campaign. It’s the work we did, and it’s the highs and lows that came throughout the whole four years.
And part of that with Kathleen was that after ’92, she actually kind of retired. She went off and was just trying to figure out if she was done rowing. I would call her up like every month and go like, “Do you want to come back to rowing?” Because I was in the single, but I hadn’t really yet embraced being a single sculler.
Then in ’94, I was the overall World Cup champion in the single. But in a final race with Silken (Laumann) … she set the world-best time. We had Canadian records by far, but Silken beat me in that race. And I remember coming home and calling Kathleen and she said, “Oh, you caught me at a really bad time, because (going back to rowing) sounds like a good idea.” That might be one of my favourite memories of that whole quadrennial.
And then the race, everything in Atlanta was complicated. Because the expectation on us was so high, and … these expectations kind of killed the joy in it. Even right now — Naomi Osaka, that would be Kathleen. Kathleen got into rowing to row…. She didn’t get into it for everything. We turned down cereal boxes. We turned down magazine covers. The whole thing.
Into ’96, people were really focusing on us…. We were this go-to, so the expectation on us wasn’t just us thinking that we could win because we had this experience and we were going extraordinarily well. It was the external expectation that really sucked the fun out of the experience. The racing and the rowing was amazing. But the highlights of that campaign are almost all behind the scenes, which is typical of any experience with Kathleen.
In the interview right after the gold-medal race in Atlanta, Scott Russell comes over to Kathleen and says, “Three gold medals — that’s amazing!” And she says, “Oh, yeah, I hadn’t even thought about it. But now that you mention it, yeah, it’s pretty neat.” And that’s a very clear indication that she was in it because she loved to row. And obviously she loved the partnership that you guys had.
And her answer was so fulsome — she kept going! Generally everyone would ask Kathleen the first question because they knew her answer would be slow, short and articulate and beautiful, but she would be done with it. But (that time) she kept going. It was amazing. It was like the first time she, like, spoke. She was just so good with it. Kay Worthington, who had done the call on that race, still comments that it was the most Kathleen ever spoke in public.
Your journey to self-discovery in terms of your sexuality came after you retired from rowing. How did that come about and what was that experience like for you as a retired athlete?
It was funny. It was just really a weird team in that we really didn’t focus on our personal life. Not in the way that people were told to leave your personal life out the door — we just were so focused on what was going on in the water.
I don’t think I knew a gay person … who was (out). So there was no one for me to go, “Oh, maybe that’s why I can’t find any guy that I fit with. I can’t figure out where I belong.” And so I think it took until I came out of sport and I just kind of chilled and I stopped focusing so much on rowing that the world got a lot bigger and I started letting more people into my circle.
And then, you know, you meet someone…. I remember a woman looked at me and our eyes met, like, “Whoa! What was that?” And I was just like, “Well, that was really weird. I don’t want to hang around her so much.” And then you’re like, “No, I do like this.”
I only want to hang around her.
Right! And there goes my productivity.
There was also such an advantage in that I was in my 30s at the time. I had my own house. I kind of just did what I wanted to do. Certainly I was in the closet for a while, because I was trying to figure out, “Is this a phase?” Like, “What’s going on?” And then I’m like, “This is definitely not a phase.” And it wasn’t until my first broken heart that I was like, “Well, I can’t go through this in the closet. I can’t do that. I have to come out because I just need more support.”
I remember going onto dating sites and thinking, well, everyone’s going to know I’m Marnie McBean. So I would have like a hat on and glasses and then I’d go out for a date with some girl and she’s like, “Oh, I totally knew you were Marnie McBean.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Well, there goes that.”
And then just spending more time down on Church Street (in Toronto). There used to be a place — Slack’s. it used to be great, and I felt really comfortable.
And this is part of Pride. For a long time, I felt really comfortable on Church Street, but it was one of those things where you’d be holding people’s hand and then as soon as you crossed Jarvis, (you let go) as you’re getting too close to Bloor.
But then I got stronger again.
I think to some extent that’s why I embrace and I’m very proud to be an ambassador of the LGBT community. But I have a tough time speaking as a member of the sport community doing it, because I don’t have that experience. I never had to overcome, you know, a bias.
I do wonder, because I was strong and muscular at a time when women weren’t strong and muscular, I would say culturally people were calling me gay or butch before I was. Like, “Oh, she’s so strong, she must be gay.” It was one of those things where female athletes by definition were gay, whereas a male athlete by definition was straight. Guys could hide in sport and girls were exposed by it.
Sometimes I wonder about that, before I had figured myself out and I had my own internalized homophobia at the time. I didn’t identify with like a (more masculine-presenting) gay woman, and I felt like hanging out with a (masculine) gay woman said something about me. And, you know, I realized that was just outrageous and homophobic. It took my wife to sort of spell it out to me — and she’s like, “You know, that’s homophobia, right?” And yeah, it totally was.
I remember at the beginning (of my time as chef), I said, “Well, I just want people to be their authentic self.” And I meant it in a far broader sense than just being part of the LGBT community — and when I say that, I do mean the LGBTQI2S+, of course.
But I think your authentic self is so many different things, right? It is your sexuality. It is your gender expression. It is whether you want to be an extrovert like me or an introvert like Kathleen. I really want people to be authentic. I want all of our introverts on the team to know that you don’t have to be (loud) to be a champion. Because Kathleen was by far the better athlete than me. And your authentic self is being authentically true and understanding how you want to represent your race and your culture, your faith — and all these things are who you are.
I want to be the chef to that team.