Athlete of the Month - August 2010
World Rowing catches up with Canadian Malcolm Howard, who switched to racing in the single after winning gold at the Olympic Games in Beijing in the men's eight. What was the transition like for him? What motivates him? What are his goals? Find out about all this and more in Part I of our Athlete of the Month interview with Malcolm Howard below.
World Rowing: You’ve been racing the single this year with the aim to medal at London 2012. What has the transition been like moving from the eight – the main event for teams – to the main event for individual head-to-head competition?
Malcolm Howard: I never thought I would miss a coxswain as much as I did warming up in Bled (2010 Rowing World Cup I). There was a moment when I was out there that I wondered ‘what am I doing and where are all my teammates?’. I had been racing in eights for a long time and it was a shock to be racing at a World Cup by myself. There was a point in one of the races, with just under 500m to go, that I realised I would already be finished in an eight’s race. The transition into the single has not been easy, but I am enjoying it.
WR: Currently the men’s single has some formidable personalities known for intense rivalries on the water and friendships off the water – how are you finding yourself fitting in as the latest player in the A-Final?
MH: I knew going into the single that it was a pretty select group of rowers. To be honest, I did not expect everyone to be so friendly. Lassi Karonen is always walking around regattas with a big smile, at least when he is off the water. Instead of returning home after Bled, I was fortunate to go to Norway and train with Olaf Tufte. There was never this level of camaraderie in eights racing. It is an amazing group of people, which I am glad to be part of.
WR: How does it feel going from ‘the top’ (winning gold at the Olympic Games in Beijing in the men’s eight and at the World Rowing Championships in 2007) to starting over again in a new event?
MH: It is nice to be starting from scratch. I have been racing eights for a long time. The challenge was still there, but I think I was looking for something new. The single was never going to be easy and I knew it would take time to figure out. Racing in the B-final in Bled was not a surprise, but it was disappointing. I was frustrated at the time, but I knew I had a lot more to learn about racing in the single. I am learning a lot about myself and I am enjoying the challenge.
WR: Your results have showed good improvement each race this season. What changes have you had to make to your training and racing approaches to adapt to being successful in the single?
MH: The transition from sweeping to sculling has not been easy. There are days when I miss sitting in the middle of an eight where all I had to do was pull hard. I am happy with my progress in the single, but it is a process, and I know it will take time. I have not changed the fundamentals of my training. It is still all about mileage and working hard. In Victoria, I am doing the same workouts as my teammates in the eight, albeit, I am a bit slower than the eight. Still, with each practice, and each race, I think I am getting more comfortable in the single and learning to feel the boat better.
WR: You have been fortunate to be coached by legendary coaches – Tony Carr (high school coach at Brentwood), Harry Parker (Harvard University coach) and Mike Spracklen (Canadian men’s team coach). How has going from great coach to great coach shaped your rowing career? What similarities and differences have you experienced?
MH: From a young age, I have been blessed with great coaches. Tony Carr gave me an incredible foundation to the sport. I raced in every boat in high school except the coxed pair, and I think that is only because Brentwood did not have any coxed pairs. Tony taught me how to race and put me on the path that so many of his rowers have taken towards the Olympics.
Harry Parker has a distinct style of coaching. He is a man of few words, but when he says something, you listen very carefully. There were races when all he said to us before was to “be persistent”. For a University programme, Harry trained us hard and in a competitive environment. I think this prepared me for rowing under Mike Spracklen. Everything Mike says to you is important and thought out. He does not waste words and as an athlete, you have to listen well. The training is harder under Mike, but it felt like a natural progression from Harry’s programme.
WR: As a youth you were originally a cyclist, following in the footsteps of your older brother. You turned to rowing after you learned that at 198cm height might not be in your favour on hill climbs. Tell us how you got started in rowing.
MH: I was born and raised in Victoria BC, the home of the Canadian Men’s Rowing team. The house I grew up in was down the street from Silken Laumann [Canadian women’s single sculler], and only a 10 minute walk from the Victoria Training Centre at Elk Lake. Growing up, it seemed only a matter of time before I tried rowing. In high school I was a strong cyclist, but I was way too big to make it to Europe. One of my teachers noticed my height and asked me if I’d ever tried rowing. Despite falling off the erg twice in my 500m try-out, I made my high school’s team. Once I started rowing, I was hooked.
The Victoria High School Rowing League has a legacy of producing many Olympians. Every fall, high schools share equipment from the local clubs and race in several regattas, starting with the aptly named “Crabfest”. Including myself, five of Canada’s medallists in Beijing were from Victoria and had started rowing in the High School League.
WR: Canada has not had a real contender in the men’s single since 1996 Olympic silver medallist Derek Porter. Porter first won gold in the men’s eight in Barcelona in 1992 before he became a dominant force in the single. Have people compared you to Derek? What has your relationship been like with Derek in your rowing career over the years? Has he had any mentoring influence in the transition?
MH: I am trying to follow in Derek’s footsteps, so it is not surprising that many people compare us. It started in 2006 when Derek was making a comeback. We lined up against each other and I beat him. It was not a race, just a competitive practice, but that was when the idea started that I should go for the single after Beijing. From there, the comparisons have never really stopped. I don’t think I’m going to date a supermodel, but I do plan on following Derek’s footsteps in the single scull to the London Games.
Derek has always had an influence on my rowing career. When I was a junior, I looked up to him as one of the “gods” of Canadian rowing. When he started rowing with us in 2006, I was privileged to train with, and learn from someone I had idolized as a junior rower. In some ways, it scares me that I am now a similar role model for the junior rowers in Victoria. Derek and I have spoken about my goals in the single and I think he will continue to help me on the road to the London Games.
WR: Did your Beijing Olympic experience live up to expectations? How did the fact that the majority of men in the eight were fuelled with a redemptive spirit from the disappointment in Athens have an impact on your Olympic experience?
MH: I was one of the two young guys in the Beijing eight. I was surrounded by so much experience, both positive and negative, which made me well-prepared for the racing and the pressure of an Olympics. The actual experience of winning gold went beyond any of my expectations. I do not know how to describe the feelings of sharing that moment with my teammates, but it was amazing. After winning in Beijing, Adam Kreek said that it was not about redemption from Athens, but seizing the moment.
I was not on the Athens team, but I learned a lot from those teammates and I think their experience impacted our training. When Kyle Hamilton decided to continue rowing to the Beijing Games, he knew he had to be better. Kyle trained as hard as he could every day. It did not matter if he would feel awful the next day, Kyle always gave it everything he could. I learned a lot from Kyle, and I did everything I could to follow his example.
WR: The World Rowing Championships in New Zealand this year will be particularly rewarding for you in terms of connecting with family. Tell us more about who will be cheering for you there and what that means to you.
MH: A few years ago my sister Rebecca and her family moved to New Zealand from Lima, Peru. I have not seen my nephews in a couple years so I am looking forward to our reunion in New Zealand. My young nephews, born in South America, are predictably star soccer players in New Zealand. It will be amazing to have so much of my family watching my races in Karapiro. I am going to stay for several weeks after the Championships to travel around New Zealand and to hang out with my nephews. There is always a chance I might take them out for a row, or maybe they can teach me how to play soccer.
Following Canadian Henley, World Rowing catches up with Malcolm Howard. Topics of discussion range from British Henley to Athens, to Beijing, to food and a future career.
World Rowing: You recently raced at the Canadian Henley winning gold in the Championship single. Since the regatta is always in August it usually conflicts with the World Championships and you miss out on the chance to race on the St. Catharines course. When was the last time you did and how was the experience different for you this time as Canada’s top sculler?
Malcolm Howard: I have been rowing for Canada for quite a few years, but this was only the third time that I have raced at Canadian Henley. In 2003, I raced with some of my U23 World Championships teammates. We did as many races as we could and had a great time. My first Canadian Henley in 1998 is the one that I will always remember. It was my first year of rowing as a junior and it was my first big regatta. We were pretty excited when we made the final in the straight four and finished 2nd.
I also remember that year the Canadian Team was training nearby and most of the Team came to watch the regatta and do some of the sprint races. My coach introduced me to Dave Calder. I admit, I was a little awestruck. Dave was, and still is, one of the top rowers in Canada. My coach told me about Dave’s Henley success starting as a junior. I realized that maybe I could follow his footsteps and one day race for Canada. This year, twelve years after I was first being introduced to the Canadian team at Henley, it was surreal to think that I was meeting all of these junior rowers from across Canada and that perhaps some will follow my footsteps and one day wear the maple leaf for Canada.
WR: Speaking of Henley, what are your visions and aims for racing in the British Henley or any other legendary regattas in the single as well?
MH: This summer I raced at British Henley for the first time in the single. I have raced at Henley for Harvard and for Canada, but always in the eight. It is certainly different in the single. For one thing, I do not remember the pleasure boats having such big wakes when I was in the eight. The race in the single is a boxing match, blow for blow until one sculler has had enough. I was eliminated on Saturday against Mahe Drysdale. It was a good race and another learning experience for me in the single. I think I will race British Henley again. There are a few other regattas I would like to race in the single - the Silverskiff regatta in Italy with the mass start looks like it could be a lot of fun and I would love to go back to Boston for another race on the Charles.
WR: Looking back on your competitive career in crew boats, after winning gold at the 2003 World Rowing Under 23 Regatta in the men’s eight, you raced a variety of smaller boats. Given your obvious physical abilities, why was the emphasis not on making Canada’s eight for Athens or subsequent World Championships in 2005 and 2006?
MH: I had an amazing year at Harvard University in 2003. We went undefeated and won the IRA National Championships by open water. Harry Parker always kept us on a very even keel. After every duel race he would tell us: “I don’t think we are that fast, they just had a very bad race.” After the Eastern Sprints, he told us: “Well done, but Washington is going to be very fast at IRAs.” We took each race in stride, and never got ahead of ourselves. I think some of Harry’s wisdom stayed with me.
In the summer of 2003, I was excited to make the Canadian U23 eight. We trained very hard for the World Championship and raced well. Several of my teammates from the U23 eight were planning on taking a year off school to train for the Olympics. I considered taking a year off to try for the Athens team, but I did not feel that I was ready. The 2003 Canadian men’s team had been very strong with a World Champion four and eight, and I did not think I was at that level yet. It was also important for me to finish my degree and focus on the Beijing Olympics. When I graduated in 2005 I had not spent enough time on the senior team to row in the eight and in 2006 the eight was not a priority boat.
WR: You spent the summer of 2006 with a rib stress fracture but then managed to succeed in the men’s pair at the World Championships in Eton, Great Britain, as Canada’s only men’s crew to medal. What was that experience like?
MH: I cracked a rib six weeks before the World Championships. Jake Wetzel (Athens silver medalist in men’s four) and I were in the middle of killing each other on a particularly long erg workout and it snapped. Jake and I were quite good at pushing each other to point where our bodies literally break. After seeing our team doctor I thought my summer was over. I was frustrated and worried that my pair partner Kevin Light would not get a chance of making another boat. Kevin did not even think of trying for another boat and told me that we would make it work. It was a great feeling when Kevin chose to stick with me, even knowing I was hurt. For the next three weeks we kept rowing, but we did all our intensity and hard work on stationary bikes. We got a lot of strange looks at the gym, two big guys suffering with a massive lake of sweat on the floor around us.
When we got to Europe we started to work hard again in the boat. We found our speed just in time for the World Rowing Championships. I still had a hard time getting the boat up to speed, but once we got it there, we raced well. It was a crazy race in the final for the bronze medal. I think we passed the Chinese on the last strokes before the line. We were never in the fight to win the race, but it was a victory of sorts for me to come back with Kevin after that injury and win a medal.
WR: Is there any race in particular in your career that stands out as where you performed beyond what you thought possible?
MH: The race that comes to mind was the final of the Temple Challenge Cup at British Henley in 2002 when I was a Harvard Freshman. We were a fast crew (won the freshman title at US Eastern Sprints). It was after that win things started to go a little wrong. Our stroke seat became ill and could not go with us to England. Still, we persevered, and we started to get our speed back when we put a Canadian rower in stroke seat for Henley. We were looking forward to facing Oxford Brooks in the final. Unfortunately our new stroke seat decided to have a kebab Saturday night before the final. He woke up sick and could not race. Our coach, Bill Manning found Graham O'Donoghue, another Harvard oarsman, just as he was about to have a Pimms after winning the Britannia Challenge Cup and told him he was not done racing.
At this point, we thought we had no chance of beating Oxford Brooks. There was no pressure, we had never rowed with Graham and he was exhausted from already having raced. We just went for it. We got a length early, Brooks brought it back to within a canvas as we came into the enclosure. I thought we were done, but we rallied and sprinted back out to a length win. We were stunned with winning after just about everything went wrong.
WR: You’re currently focused full time on rowing, however you have plans to further your education post 2012. What kind of career do you see yourself moving into, and how do you see your experiences in rowing helping you be successful in that field?
MH: I plan on starting Medical School in the fall of 2012. I am excited to go back to school. I never thought I would miss studying, but I actually do – well, maybe not having to write exams. I believe that my ability to work on a team and my work ethic will help me be a better doctor. Not to mention my ability to function while extremely tired and exhausted will probably help when I am a medical resident.
WR: After Beijing you spent some time with non-rowing activities to support the CAN fund. Tell us more about that and how you and other rowers benefit?
MH: The Canadian Athletes Now Fund is a charity that has been supporting Canadian athletes for the last 10 years. Every year they provide grants to Canadian athletes for training and equipment to support their Olympic aspirations. In the lead up to Athens and Beijing, the fund was a big supporter of the rowing team. Many of my teammates from Beijing would not have been able to continue training after Athens without grants from the CAN Fund. After Beijing, I spent some time in Toronto helping raise funds for the winter athletes leading up to the 2010 Games. During the Vancouver Olympics, most of the rowing team worked in Vancouver helping the fund.
WR: After your rowing career is over, what do you want to be remembered for by your teammates, and by the rowing community at large?
MH: Rowing careers have to end? To be honest, I have not thought much about retirement, but I know I have to stop one day. I hope my teammates will not only remember our amazing races but also the journey we went on together. Across the rowing community in Canada, I hope to be remembered not simply by my accomplishments, but as a role model and someone who is approachable and always answers questions and does his best to help.
WR: Rowing has provided you the opportunity to travel around the world to some amazing places. Do you have a favorite venue for training camps or racing? What have been the most memorable international experiences? Any memories you’d rather forget?
MH: My favorite training camps have always been in Italy. The weather and lakes are great, but most important of all, the food is amazing. What could better fuel me than homemade gnocchi followed by stracciatella gelato? As for racing, along with every other rower in the world, I love racing in Lucerne.
My first trip overseas to Bulgaria for Junior World’s was memorable. Besides the ridiculously fast water, the Roman ruins were amazing. The opening ceremonies were in a Roman amphitheatre! Training on Katsura Lake for the 2005 World Championships in Japan was memorable for another reason. We learned the hard way that you could not train past 4pm. For some reason at that exact time, bugs the size of small birds would come out of the woods and try and eat us alive.
WR: At 235 lbs (106kg) you must build up quite the appetite with all the training - do you have a favorite home cooked meal?
MH: Besides steak and potatoes, lots and lots of potatoes, I do have a favorite home cooked meal. Here’s the recipe:
Malcolm’s Mom’s Peanut Thai Noodles (Not recommended for lightweights)
1 lb (450g) spaghetti
1 cup (250ml) chunky peanut butter
1 cup (250ml) orange juice
1/4 cup (6cl) soy sauce
1/4 (6cl) cup sesame oil
1/4 cup (6cl) vegetable oil
2 Tablespoon (soup spoon) cider vinegar
1 Tablespoon (soup spoon) hot pepper sauce
1/2 Teaspoon (coffee spoon) salt
2 large green onions, sliced
1 medium cucumber, sliced
Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Drain. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together peanut butter, orange juice, soy sauce, sesame oil, vegetable oil, cider vinegar, pepper sauce and salt until smooth. Add cooked spaghetti and green onions; toss well. Serve hot or cover and refrigerate to serve cold. Just before serving, toss with additional orange juice (if necessary) and garnish with cucumber slices.
We usually add a ton of chopped up peanuts to the final dish which makes it really tasty.