Toronto Star article, by Dave Peschuk, published July 11, 2012
In the nearly 20 years since Marnie McBean struck double rowing gold at the Barcelona Olympics, she has cycled in Tuscany, written a book, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (twice) and introduced herself to Sidney Crosby as the border collie of the Canadian Olympic team.
The latter achievement came in Vancouver in 2010, when McBean was fulfilling her ongoing role as a mentor to Canada’s Olympians. It was Day 4 of the Games. Canada’s Mike Robertson had just won silver in snowboard cross and was heading back to the athletes’ village.
McBean wanted Robertson to return to a well-populated celebration in the village’s main lobby. Ever the brash extrovert, she began corralling athletes into an elevator en route.
“The elevator happened to stop on the men’s hockey floor. And suddenly, there’s Sidney Crosby and a few of his teammates standing in front of us,” McBean said. “The elevator was pretty full and they weren’t going to get in. I was like, ‘Get in.’ And they’re looking at me. And I’m like, ‘No, just get in.’ So I basically bullied about five of the hockey guys to get on the elevator. And then I introduced myself. I said, ‘Hi, I’m Marnie. I’m the team’s border collie.’ I explained to them that we were going to celebrate an athlete coming home with a medal.”
Crosby and his fellow hockeyists stayed for the celebration, which puts them among a long line of Canadian jocks who have responded positively to McBean’s brand of communication. Part rah-rah motivator, part home-spun philosopher, the 44-year-old alumnus of Etobicoke Collegiate has been mentoring Canada’s Winter and Summer Olympic teams since 2006.
In a year that has also seen her author a book — The Power of More, with a foreword by NBA star Steve Nash, came out in May — she has spent most of her time helping various members of Canada’s London-bound contingent make their final preparations for the Games.
Chelsea Aubry, a forward for Canada’s women’s basketball squad, said McBean’s session with her team was enlightening.
“She’s so well spoken and she keeps you entertained,” Aubry said. “The biggest thing she talks about is, ‘Make it your Olympics.’ Don’t get too distracted by everything going on around you. … When you can talk to someone who’s one of Canada’s most successful Olympians, it’s so great. She was just there for us in any way we needed.”
Diana Matheson, a member of the women’s soccer squad, has called McBean “a big influence and inspiration.” Adam van Koeverden, the Olympic champion kayaker, calls her “a huge help.”
“She just makes herself available. She’s just Marnie,” van Koeverden said. “She doesn’t mind telling me I’m an ass—. She doesn’t mind telling me, ‘You shouldn’t act like that in public.’ She’s a little bit hypocritical at times. She tells you not to swear in interviews. And she swears in interviews more than anyone.”
In two recent chats with a reporter, to be fair, McBean let fly with precisely one unprintable in the span of nearly an hour. She acknowledges that she can be more prolifically profane when she’s on the job with would-be Olympic medallists.
“With athletes, I’m a trucker,” is how she put it.
With athletes, her niche is relatively unique. She’s not a sports psychologist, nor a traditional sport-specific coach. Her Canadian Olympic Committee business card calls her a specialist in athlete preparation. Her monthly ruminations on the Olympic journey — emailed to members and would-be members of the Olympic team but also available to anyone at MarnieMcBean.ca — have become popular talking points for teams and coaches and bureaucrats. She also meets with athletes face to face to discuss the ups and downs of the five-ringed pursuit. Her goal, she said, is to help Canada’s best “wear their stress well.”
“Her writing really provides food for thought,” said Mark Tewksbury, the Olympic gold-medal swimmer who will be Canada’s chef de mission in London. “The Olympics are so unique, and you don’t know what to expect. I think that by having someone like Marnie who’s been there, who has successfully conquered it, and who can share stories in a way that are relevant to people — what’s not to like? Mentoring can be powerful.”
McBean, who won three Olympic golds and a bronze in a career cut short by a back injury in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Games, said her relationship with rowing crewmate Kathleen Heddle, documented memorably in The Power of More, still informs her view on the myriad ways to successfully prepare for world-class performance. While McBean was outspoken and outgoing even as a national-team rookie, Heddle was shy, which initially led McBean to believe she was also unaggressive and uncompetitive.
“When I started paying more attention, I realized she was just as dedicated to the details, just as dedicated to winning, as I was,” McBean said. “I’m not looking for athletes to be cookie-cutter versions of me.”
At these Games McBean won’t be living among the athletes; once competition begins she’ll trade her mentoring role for a spot as a rowing analyst on the Canadian broadcast. By that time, short of herding humans with canine enthusiasm, her work will have been complete. She likes to call the athletes with whom she has worked “wind-up toys that are wound up now.” All that’s left is the unleashing.
“Sometimes I’m like a big sister to the whole team. Sometimes I’m like a mascot, a buddy, an example. It changes with every team,” she said. “I kind of think of myself as a catalyst. I’m a little nerdy. I used to take a lot of sciences in high school. And a catalyst doesn’t really add to the reaction — it just speeds it up. I never assume to be part of anybody’s performance. But I can be part of their preparations. And if I can help them come to some realizations about themselves, or about what they want, or about what they’re feeling — I think I’ve helped them prepare.”