MISSISSAUGA SPORTS HALL OF FAME
Born: November 14, 1964
Once in a blue moon, Canadian sports fans tend to get excited about something - mostly hockey. It had happened in 1972 when Paul Henderson (then a Mississauga resident) scored that most famous of all hockey goals in the last minute of the final game to give Canada the series win over the Soviets in the clash of all ages. It had happened again 30 years later in Salt Lake City when another edition of Team Canada captured the country's first Olympic hockey gold in a half century. But getting fired up about rowing? Believe it or not, it did happen, and the athlete sparking Canadian sports pride was Mississauga's Silken Laumann.
The year was 1992 and Silken was racing in the Olympic final of the women's single sculls in Barcelona, Spain.
Win or lose, it didn't matter. Although Canadians were keeping collective fingers crossed for a medal, the fact that Silken was at the starting line alone was nothing short of a miracle, a triumph of the human spirit and a testimony to a special athlete's determination and desire.
Barely a year earlier, in the summer of 1991, it was widely predicted that Laumann would be a shoo-in to win the Olympic gold, having completed a remarkable season in which she was the overall winner in a series of six races for the World Cup, then crowned world champions in a single winner-take-all race in Vienna. Honour after honour was bestowed on Laumann, including winning the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's Female Athlete of the Year. She was also named Mississauga's Outstanding Female Athlete. The rowing world was her oyster to taste.
Then tragedy struck. In May 1992, with a little more than two months before the world's best athletes gathered for the Barcelona Olympics, Silken was fine-tuning her preparation, competing in a pre-Olympic race in Essen, Germany. She was just warming up for the race when, out of nowhere, a German boat crashed into her shell, severing all the muscles, ligaments and tendons midway up her right shin, all the way down to her ankle.
The initial medical report said she would never race again. Then the blow was softened, later examinations determined that this wouldn't be the end of her rowing career, but the expert medical opinion was that there was no way she would race in Barcelona. The lone dissenter was Silken Laumann, she was determined to make it - and she did. Rest, rehabilitation, hard work and more determination than most people possess did what two months before the Olympics seemed impossible.
She not only made it to Barcelona, but incredibly on August 3, Silken Laumann was one of six finalists in the 2,000m women's sculls.
In Mississauga, like the rest of the country, many viewers who normally wouldn't give a fig about watching a sport event on the boob tube - were glued to their television sets on a mid-summer August night. In Barcelona, it was morning, but because of the time zone difference, in Ontario it was 3 o'clock in the middle of the night, not your normal TV watching time.
CTV came on the air just to show the women's single sculls finals. Ratings later showed, the event attracted just about as many viewers as Hockey Night in Canada despite the unusual hour. Nobody really expected her to win and few even dared to think she could make it to the medal podium. Halfway through the race, she was in forth place. "I knew I couldn't win, but I wanted one of the medals," Silken said. "Forth is the worst position, you just miss a medal."
When the medals were handed out later, Silken Laumann was on the presentation podium, basking in a proud glow of a bronze just shone as bright as gold. In its coverage, The New York Times reported: "Laumann has touched her nation a million times."
The bronze in Barcelona was one of three Olympic medals Silken had won during her remarkable competitive career. In her 1984 Olympic debut in Los Angeles, she teamed with her older sister Danielle - who got her interested in rowing in the first place - the pair captured a bronze. They were coached by Fred Loek at the Don Rowing Club in Port Credit. Then in her Olympics swan song, 12 years later on Lake Lanier just outside Atlanta, she had won a silver. "I'm happy with myself," said Laumann. "At the end of the day, it's not the medals you remember."
Silken certainly has a lot to remember. She has been showered with recognition and many awards, including the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's Outstanding Athlete, and was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 1998 and at the 25th Anniversary of the Mississauga Awards Dinner a year later, into the Mississauga Sports Hall of Fame alongside her sister Danielle and their first coach, Fred Loek.
Silken was also recipient of the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award in 1997, the first time this award has gone to a non-American; awarded the Meritorious Service Medal of Canada in 1993; vote Canadian of the Year by the Canadian Club, and awarded the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's Top Athlete in 1992; voted Canadian Athlete of the Year in 1991 and '92; named Mississauga's Female Athlete of the Year four times (sharing the award with her sister Danielle in 1984, then solo in 1990, '91 and '92); awarded honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Victoria, McMaster University, and University of Windsor.
The only upset in her career came in '95 when she was stripped of her Pan American Games quadruple gold after inadvertently consuming a banned substance in cough medication.
As a post-Olympic career inspirational speaker, Silken had taken her audiences across Canada and in the U.S. on the journey of a lifetime, as she shared her story, from broken bones and shredded muscles to Olympic glory.
Far more than a sports story, it is a story of courage, perseverance and the triumph of the human spirit, a long and glorious journey from Lorne Park High School and Don Rowing Club.