Canada kayaker Mark de Jonge hoping for Olympic redemption after Rio stunner

·5 min read

TOKYO — Mark de Jonge had things all mapped out.

The Canadian kayaker was the two-time defending world champion in the 200-metre singles event and eyeing gold as he headed off to the 2016 Olympics.

He'd burst onto the scene with a bronze medal in the sprint race four years earlier at the London Games, and it seemed logical — the Halifax native is a civil engineer by trade, after all — his next move would be to top the podium in Rio de Janeiro.

Following that triumph on sport's biggest stage, de Jonge expected to take a victory lap around kayaking's world circuit before paddling off into the sunset.

There was always a chance things might not go as planned — maybe it would be second or third in Brazil instead of first — but he was blindsided by what came next.

De Jonge wound up a stunning seventh at Rio's Lagoa Stadium in an event he'd dominated most of the previous 36 months, nearly 0.9 seconds off the gold-medal winner's time. The margin was, quite frankly, an eternity in a competition where powerful athletes go all out for roughly 35 seconds.

The questions started almost immediately.

"We definitely picked it apart," de Jonge said. "We had a big debrief to see what happened and how we could improve."

The 37-year-old believes it's impossible to know for sure, but the best guess was his constant push to get better every year — de Jonge is known for his near-constant tweaking of both his stroke and equipment — after his bronze in London wore him down physically and mentally.

"I kept doing really well on the world stage," he said. "Every year I was trying to be the best in the world, and I think that you can't do that. In order to succeed over four years, you need to approach it as a four-year plan instead of four sets of one-year plans. By the time Rio came around, I was just tapped out.

"It's very hard to hold that high level for as long as I did. Eventually there was a breaking point."

So the decision was made to take his foot off the gas if de Jonge had any intention of competing at the Tokyo Olympics. He continued to train, but didn't race at all in 2017.

"A really nice mental and physical break," de Jonge said. "Then in 2018 I was ready to come back into the sport fresh to attack things again."

He and his wife, Lee Anne, started a family with the arrival of son Max during the 2017 break, and de Jonge also began looking to his future by founding a watch-making company.

"It was fun," he said of his new business. "It distilled that downtime a little bit."

Things also changed on the water, where he eventually moved from the solo K-1 to a K-4 500-metre boat with Toronto's Nicholas Matveev, Pierre-Luc Poulin of Lac-Beauport, Que., and Simon McTavish of Oakville, Ont., who range in age from 23 to 25.

Despite the generation gap, de Jonge made it clear the crew, which qualified for Tokyo in an Olympic trial race-off this spring, works well together.

"It could be odd at first," he said. "But we have a common thing to talk about, which is being on the water.

"They're living similar lives."

The men's K-4 is hopeful of challenging for the podium in Japan's capital, but the best chance for Canoe Kayak Canada, which was shut out in Rio, likely lies in the women's canoe, which is set to make its Olympic debut.

Laurence Vincent-Lapointe of Trois-Rivières, Que., is a former world champion in the sprint and one of the favourites in the C-1 200-metre race. She'll also be looking to finish in the medals in the C-2 at 500 metres with partner Katie Vincent of Mississauga, Ont., who's also in the shorter individual competition.

It wasn't that long ago de Jonge was the youngster on the team led by four-time Olympic medallist Adam van Koeverden.

"You definitely feel old," de Jonge said. "But it's been cool to be that guy that people can come to for questions."

While there have been lots of positives for de Jonge over the last five years in the wake of his Rio disappointment, the family suffered a devastating blow last September when his older sister, Carlin, was left paralyzed below the arms with limited use of her hands following a cycling accident in Calgary.

"She's gone through a lot," de Jonge said. "It's given me a lot of perspective about what I'm doing. She's dealing with this for the rest of her life.

"But she's dealing with it in a really positive way."

His sibling was added motivation, especially during difficult periods of the COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed the Tokyo Games by a year.

"It's been a really unfortunate thing to have happened," de Jonge said of Carlin's accident. "But really nice to see that she's still herself and still able to live a full life. It's been really inspiring for me. Going through the pandemic and training for the Olympics has been hard, but it's reframed it for me that life can be a whole lot worse ... and, you know, stop complaining.

"If my sister can get through this with a smile on her face, then I can definitely approach difficult problems and get through them, too."

As he heads towards what will almost certainly be his final Games, de Jonge said the fire still burns hot.

"I'm a competitive guy," he said. "It's just my nature. The past few years, what's kept me going is that things didn't work out as well as I had hoped in Rio. I felt like there was some unfinished business."

And family has also been a massive factor — now with Carlin's injuries, but before that, Max's entry into the world.

"It's been a bit more about showing him a good example," de Jonge said. "Pushing through and trying to achieve your dreams."

Dad has one more shot.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2021.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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