WINDSOR, England — It is shorter than a modern paddle, and it is made of actual wood, not some synthetic material. Mark Oldershaw said if he took one stroke, it might break. Yet he brought it from Burlington, Ont., back to where it all began.
Bert Oldershaw represented Canada at the London Olympics – in 1948. He finished fifth in the canoe double 1,000 metres and had his competitors sign his paddle as a souvenir. He went to two more Summer Games (1952, '56), then had three sons go to their own Olympics: Dean ('72, '76), Reed ('72, '76) and Scott ('84).
Finally, he passed the paddle to his grandson. He gave it to Mark in 2001, after he won two gold medals at the junior world championships. Mark displayed it on the wall in his bedroom – a memorial after Grandpa Bert died in 2006, an inspiration as he went to Beijing in '08 – and he made sure he had it in his hotel room here.
"For luck," he said.
Mark came back to grab bronze in the men's canoe single 1,000 metres Wednesday. Five Oldershaws had competed in eight Olympics, and their best finish was Bert's fifth place at the London Games – until Mark's third place at the London Games. Finally, the Oldershaws had a medal.
"This is one of the bronze medals that means almost as much as a gold," said Scott Oldershaw, Mark's father and coach. "Some do, some don't. This one is definitely way up there."
You know Grandpa Bert was watching.
"He's really proud right now," Mark said. "He's proud of all of us, no matter what, but definitely this is extra special for him. The first Oldershaw to get on the Olympic podium? I'm sure he's proud."
Mark did not have to follow the family tradition. He's 6-foot-1, 207 pounds. He played AAA hockey. "He could have chosen any of 10 sports here," said kayaker Adam van Koeverden, Mark's longtime friend and sometime training partner.
Yet he felt at home at the Burloak Canoe Club in Oakville, Ont., where his father was the head coach and his brother Adam has now taken over. He felt at home in a boat, on the water, doing what his grandfather and father and uncles did. Even when it wasn’t easy, wasn't easy at all.
Mark developed a tumor on his left hand – his top hand. It was benign, but brutal, a bone growth that twice required surgery. Basically, the doctors needed a hammer and chisel to chip it away. Scott said it probably kept him out of the 2004 Athens Games.
"Sometimes I thought I would never get back on the water, which was really depressing," Mark said, "because I love being on the water."
"It was on a nerve, and the slightest movement, he would be in agony," Scott said. "He spent a year where he probably didn't sleep more than 30 minutes a time, because as soon as he moved in his sleep, he'd wake up from the pain. We didn't even realize at the time how bad it was. He endured it."
Mark wanted to race so badly, he and his brother built a swivel joint that connected his wrist to his paddle. The contraption allowed him to paddle without using his top hand.
"Everything after that was probably easier for him," Scott said.
Easier, but not easy. Mark healed. He represented the third generation of Oldershaws in Beijing. But he failed to qualify for the final in the men's canoe single 500 metres, meaning that out of all the Oldershaw Olympic appearances, there had been only one final – Grandpa Bert, in London.
[Related: van Koeverden wins silver in kayak]
That stayed with Mark for four years, through all of his training and his races. Then he made the final of the men's canoe single 1,000 metres this week. Before the race, he touched the name "OLDERSHAW" on the side of his boat, for luck. The whole race, he looked at the huge Maple Leaf on his boat, for inspiration.
Understand this event. These guys position themselves on one knee and stroke to one side all the way down the length of the course. They need a combination of balance, power and pain tolerance. As van Koeverden put it, they are like "ballerinas and linebackers in one body."
At 250 metres, Mark was sixth. At 500, he was fifth.
"I tried to relax as much as I could the first half," Mark said. "And then there was that make-it-or-break-it moment around halfway when everyone's getting super exhausted.
"You think it's just you that's getting tired. For a moment, in your head, 'Should I stop? This is really, really hard, and it hurts, and it's going to hurt more and more every stroke.' But then you look back at the last four years, the last 20 years, and say, 'I've put so much work into this. If I don't go for it now, what have I been doing?' I just put my head down and went for the last 500."
At 750 metres, Mark was fourth. It was a race now. The early leaders were fading; others were charging. Mark actually nosed into second for a moment, but Spain's David Cal Figueroa was flying up on his right.
At the finish, it was Germany's Sebastien Brendel in 3:47.176, followed by Cal Figueroa in 3:48.053 and Oldershaw in 3:48.502.
"The long hours over the winter the last four years, the last 20 years, paid off that the last 20 metres," Mark said. "It hurts like anything, but you just keep going because you know everyone else is hurting as well.
"To finally get the Oldershaw name on the Olympic podium, I don't know. I'm really proud of it. I'm super happy with the bronze."
Mark leaned against his long, synthetic modern paddle as he spoke. Someone asked what he would do with it. He said he would try to get his competitors to sign it as a souvenir, the way Grandpa Bert had at the 1948 London Games, "so I can give it to my grandson."
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