Cold sendoff for gold medal coach Mike Spracklen

Rowers upset with Rowing Canada coach’s dismissal, other rowers happy

Mike Spracklen in the chilly winter air of Elk Lake.

Mike Spracklen had his share of detractors, but he didn’t think it was enough to tip him out of the boat.

Earlier this week Rowing Canada made a bold decision to fire the decorated coach. Off-and-on since 1990, Spracklen guided Canadians to multiple Olympic and World Championship gold medals, helping Silken Laumman to fame in the 1990s and, in recent years, the crews of the men’s heavyweight eight and pairs to the Olympic podium.

The national program is restructuring, which includes hiring a new performance director for the heavyweight men’s program based at Elk Lake, to be announced later.

“Mike has left a significant legacy and we respect and celebrate his many achievements,” said Peter Cookson, the high performance director in a statement.

“Two medals (in London) does not meet our expectations – we are driven to improve on this.”

“Certainly I was surprised,” Spracklen said from his Sidney home on Tuesday. “I still have something to offer, providing my health stays good then I’ll continue coaching. I want to go and help people who want my help, and I’ll continue to do what I can for them.

“If they don’t want my help, I don’t want to be with them.”

Just as several current rowers stepped forward to defend Spracklen on Tuesday, he’s also been the target of controversy since about 2010, mainly from men’s pair of Dave Calder and Scott Frandsen, who’ve openly criticizing his style of coaching.

The CBC published a letter on Tuesday from Frandsen in support of Spracklen’s removal, but he and Calder passed up a request for comment to the News.

From the CBC letter, Frandsen voiced harsh words, accusing Spracklen of creating an inner circle of rowers, with an “us against them” mentality against the rest of the rowing team, and for employing an unfair selection process for the international boat crews.

But current rower and 2012 Olympian Lindsay Jennerich–who fought and won against Rowing Canada for the right as the only women’s boat to train at Elk Lake under Spracklen–and Kevin Light, a member of the 2008 Olympic gold-medal heavyweight eight, are among the many who disagree with Calder and Frandsen’s outlook, as well as Rowing Canada’s.

“Removing Spracklen not only weakens the future of the heavy men’s rowing team, it removes an aura of excellence, dedication and hard work from the entire high performance system… Right now Rowing Canada is in a process of eliminating some of the best resources to rowers that exist in this country … firing Mike Spracklen is proof that the system is not making choices based on winning. They are making them based on politics. What wins medals is belief in the plan. Myself and many others now have none,” Jennerich wrote in an email to the News.

Light too, is upset.

“Cookson is a nice guy, and as a rower he always treated me well, but he made a wrong decision and hasn’t realized the ramifications of what he’s done,” Light said.

In their announcement to release Spracklen, Rowing Canada also promoted coach John Keogh to the role of performance director for the women and Al Morrow as the head of the lightweight men’s program, which now moves from Elk Lake to London, Ont.

Spracklen, now 75 years old, and his wife Annie, have resided in Sidney full time since 2000, but still own a home in Marlow, just west of London, England, close to the famous Henley-On-Thames, the hallowed waters of of rowing.

It’s hard to imagine that even in his later years, Spracklen won’t have any high-performance opportunities come his way. His international resumé dates back to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where he helped Britain’s men’s double scull to silver. In the 1980s he coached Oxford to defeats of Cambridge in The Boat Race.

And even with the negative comments and controversy around him earning national press attention in the last two years, his time in Canada can hardly be called anything but a success.

Spracklen’s been part of seven gold medals for Canada since 1990, and in 2002 he was named the International Rowing Federation Coach of the Year as a Canadian coach.

“I will continue coaching somewhere, unlikely here,” Spracklen said. “I will just grab my thoughts together and decide where I should go, or what’s available to me.”

Spracklen is fond of his time in Canada but is disappointed in Rowing Canada’s decision.

“It only takes one person to think you’re not capable. There will always be athletes who don’t make the team and they’ll complain. It’s something I’ve dealt with all my life as every rowing coach has.”