Letter From Hugh Fisher - 1984 Canadian Olympian
Over the past few days, my colleagues and I have been brainstorming ideas on how to help ease the stress of training through uncertainty. One of the ideas that has come up was to reach out to athletes who trained for the 1980 & 1984 Olympics to get their perspective and add their thoughts with regards to training and sport during the current Pandemic. (See his letter written below)
One of those athletes is Hugh Fisher, a kayak paddler who won a gold and bronze medal in the K-2 1000m and k-2 500m, respectively, in the 1984 Olympics. Hugh also received the order of Canada in 1985 and is currently a medical doctor. Hugh is a great guy and has some insightful comments to offer to all paddlers who are currently working hard to keep up their training.
We hope to have more opportunities for our former athletes to contribute their thoughts in the coming weeks.
Assistant Head Coach, BBCC
Hi. Thanks for reaching out. Here goes.
In 1980 Denis Barre and I ranked ourselves top 3 in the world. In our minds we had a very good chance of winning Olympic Gold. The news of the boycott, a decision ironically at the time made by Justin’s dad Pierre Trudeau and conveyed to us during Florida training camp was a terrible and unexpected bombshell. We continued to train and race and won most of our pre-Olympic competitions. The awful moment came after a regatta in Poland. At the Warsaw airport our competitors, folks we had just beaten that weekend got on flights and headed to Moscow. We got on flights and headed for home. A little group of us had alternate plans and we detoured to Spain and raced in a series of long-distance races which were just a lot of fun and gave us a chance to refocus and drink potent apple cider. While in Spain we watched the Olympics and saw paddlers we had beaten in Bydgoszcz win medals.
We were young, angry, frustrated. One of the things I had done at that time was to get deeply involved in the practice of mental training. Every night for a year I had done mental rehearsal, used mental imagery of us winning gold again and again. By the time of the Games I had an incredibly strong belief of our invincibility. The boycott destroyed that, like a painting painted on glass smashed by someone bent on vandalizing my future, my most core beliefs and values and dreams lay shattered. Shattered by politicians. Blame someone. I became cynical, I became careless. I went back to school taking for the first time a full load. I cut back on training. In the 1981 spring I neglected some training principles. I became injured.
Though injured I went to Florida and took along a folding lawn chair rather than a paddle. Everyone was mad. Fisher was broken. Barre -Fisher broke up. Barre paddled with Morris. Eventually because of my injury I had to stop training completely. I missed the trials. I thought it was over. I coached the Canada Games group from BC. And I started to feel better. I found mental rehearsal, as I had practiced it was too painful so just stopped it, forgot about it. Maybe through refocusing on something outside myself, helping these young kids reach for their own hopes and dreams and aspirations and frankly by just being with a crowd that didn’t take the whole game nearly as seriously as I had for years, I think I began to heal.
In the fall Alwyn was tremendously positive. He and Denis had finished 4th at the 81 worlds. He wanted to train super hard. I juggled school a bit and trained super hard with him and almost unbelievingly started to enjoy training again. Unfortunately, 1982 was Denis Barre’s year to become injured. I eventually, guiltily, raced with Alwyn. We were permitted to just hang around Europe all summer which for us meant training in the south of France. Amazing experience. At the worlds we finished second in 1000. On the 500 we caught a long strand of weeds having qualified just about the fastest and went out the back door.
Amazingly to me, I took it in stride. It was as if the boycott bullshit actually made me value both the winning less and and get much less upset with losing. What really did it matter? What was important?
We went back home and trained even harder. At the 83 worlds which were in Tampere we drew a bad lane. In very unfair strong cross headwinds, the inside lanes were greatly sheltered. To this day I remember 1/2 way down the course submarining the bow under a wave and the wave breaking against the spray deck and exploding over Alwyn soaking me in the back seat, the whole huge exploding watery bomb glowing spectacularly in the sun. Thinking we could take gold we came sixth or something, but I didn’t get upset. I didn’t drop kick the boat as I might have done in 1980. That winter we trained harder and smarter. In 84 the paddling gods smiled at us but at those Olympic games, though we thought we would win 500 gold. We did not. The world didn’t end. The sun came up the next morning. We raced again.
When I look back, the boycott was a terrible unexpected event far beyond our control. At the time it shattered our dreams. I think if I had raced at the Olympics in 1980, we would have finished no worse than third. I think I would have been happy with that and quit and got on with my premed degree and gone down that route 4 years sooner in my life. The boycott changed the way I thought about sport and the way I thought about life in very positive ways. I think eventually when I got through the anger, I started to train smarter and harder and good things happened, some because of luck, some because of hard work and perseverance, a lot because of the positive helpful supportive group around me.
I think as I have gone through life when unexpected terrible things happen, because of that 1980 experience, I am better at dealing with these novel, unexpected, awful experiences too.
Even in writing this 40 years after the event, my stomach churns and my jaw tightens with the unfairness of it all. In my case that old platitude “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger “did apply. At the time I struggled with “keeping things in perspective” because I could not but that is probably the lesson that I eventually learned and unexpectedly, unpredictably that lesson stuck and contributed not only to our 1984 results but to my life ever since. Over the years I developed in my mind the concept of “path of the paddle” which for me has meant I am at my calmest, and most positive and most mindful out on the water.
Get out on the water. Our secret sanctuary. Land-people don’t understand. Paddle far. Enjoy the sounds, the feel, the breathing, the balance, the joy of reaching far and deep and pulling, the waves, the wet, the group surfing along on the “socially distant” wash ride, the privilege, the solitude. Help each other and your families and your coaches manage the stress of this f***ing COVID. We will recover, the world will recover, and you will be even faster.
Hugh Fisher, OLY