WINDSOR, England — This wasn't just the final of the men's kayak single 1,000 metres Wednesday morning. This was a tiebreaker between two old friends: Canada's Adam van Koeverden and Norway's Eirik Veras Larsen. Each had a set of Olympic medals – gold, silver, bronze – and both wanted the better medal here.
Van Koeverden was the heavy favourite. He was the reigning world champion, and had blown away the competition in his heat and semifinal. You might have said he was Canada's last best hope for gold at the London Games.
But he knew better than to be so presumptuous. He had slept on Larsen's couch. He had eaten dinner at his house. He had trained with him for 14 years – maybe 1,000 workouts, across the globe – and he figured they split the victories in their sessions about 50-50.
"Sometimes you have to flip a coin," van Koeverden said, "and if it comes up the wrong side for you, then you've got to deal with that."
Van Koeverden insisted he could deal with this. Larsen caught him in the final 250 metres and grabbed the gold, leaving him with silver. But it wasn't because he went out too fast, wasn't because he burned too much fuel, wasn't because he didn't have enough at the end.
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"It's not a case of a screwed-up race plan," van Koeverden said. "It's a case of one guy in the whole world being better than me, and I can live with that. Seven billion people? One guy's better?"
And especially if it's this guy? Fine.
Van Koeverden was 17 when he first met Larsen, and both have had outstanding careers. But if you look at it, van Koeverden has been better at the 500 metres, which was dropped from the Olympics this year, much to his chagrin, and Larsen has been better at the 1,000.
Look at their previous Olympic medals: Van Koeverden won gold in the 500 eight years ago in Athens and silver in the 500 four years ago in Beijing; he won bronze in the 1,000 in Athens. Larsen won all his medals in 1,000-metre events: gold and silver in the single in Athens and Beijing, respectively, and bronze in the double in Athens. Larsen finished fourth in the single 500 in Athens and Beijing.
Van Koeverden was ready Wednesday morning. He looked at the gray, rainy sky over Dorney Lake and felt lucky to be here. He remembered his friend Simon Whitfield, the Canadian triathlon star who fell of his bike Tuesday morning and did not finish his final Olympic race. He wanted to write Whitfield's name on the front of his boat, but he didn't have a marker, so he wrote it with his finger on the deck.
"I thought, 'This one's for the Whitfield legacy,' " van Koeverden said. "He deserved more yesterday."
Van Koeverden and Whitfield describe competing as expressing their fitness. They train to win, and when they race, they express all their hard work and see where it places them. If they make a full expression, they can be satisfied, no matter where they end up.
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With Whitfield watching, van Koeverden started strong. He pulled ahead of the field by half a boat length, then a full boat length, and quickly. He led at 250 metres. He led at 500 metres.
"I was ahead of the guys that I wanted to be ahead of, which is everybody," van Koeverden said. "To the uninitiated, it might have seemed like I went out really, really hard, but I was super relaxed the first half, just moving my boat really efficiently."
Van Koeverden led at 750 metres, too. But now Larsen was closing, and van Koeverden knew it.
"I could see Eirik out of the corner of my eye, and I just thought, 'I've done this so many times. I have done this last quarter with Eric on my shoulder so many times. Let's do it again,' " van Koeverden said. "I did it as best I could."
Larsen pulled even. Larsen pulled past. Larsen finished in 3:26:462, van Koeverden in 3:27.170.
"Tomorrow morning the silver will be amazing and awesome," said van Koeverden's coach, Scott Oldershaw, whose son Mark won bronze in the men's canoe single 1,000 right after van Koeverden's race. "Right now there's still some disappointment not winning that one.
"He went for it. He had a good race – just not there the last 100 metres that he's had through the season. So that was the difference. Larsen had an awesome race, probably his best race since he won in Athens (eight years ago)."
[Photos: Adam van Koeverden in action]
There were six other kayakers, and Germany's Max Hoff took bronze in 3:27.759. But this was like those 1,000 or so training sessions across so many years in so many places, van Koeverden vs. Larsen, seeing who was best on that particular day, knowing both were the best in the bigger picture.
"We've said to each other many, many times after training, 'I don't think anybody in the world could have done what we did today,' " van Koeverden said. "And we're not being cocky. We're not being arrogant. We're not being boastful. We're saying, 'World-class stuff.' So today was no exception."
Van Koeverden doesn't know what's next. He's 30 now, no longer young, but not yet old. He has accomplished so much, having won four medals and carried the Canadian flag at the Opening Ceremony in Beijing. With nothing left to prove, he has to find out what he has left.
"I don't feel like I’m done paddling," van Koeverden said, "but I need some time away from it to know for sure."
Before van Koeverden spoke to reporters Wednesday morning, he ran over to hug his mother, Beata. She told him she was so proud. He told her the medal was the wrong colour. She said she didn't care.
"I mean, I care," van Koeverden said. "But this …"
He reached down and flipped the medal hanging around his neck, like a coin.
"… is awesome."
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