TOKYO — Marnie McBean has two enduring memories from the Atlanta Olympics: sharing a warm embrace with her late double-sculling partner Kathleen Heddle and a grandstand filled with cheering fans after they won their third gold medal in rowing.
Twenty-five years later at another Olympics half a world away and sadly neither are present. Heddle succumbed to cancer earlier this year and because of COVID-19 precautions in Japan fans are not allowed to watch any events in person at the Tokyo Games.
"There was a moment after the race when Kathleen leaned back and we sort of grabbed hands, but then she leaned back so I could give her a hug, she laid on my legs," said McBean on Tuesday in Tokyo where she's Canada's Chef de Mission for the 2020 Summer Games.
McBean still laughs at the memory of how their fatigue from the race made it hard to disentangle themselves after that victory hug. Because Heddle had leaned so far back in their boat McBean had to try and push her partner forward, something she barely had the strength to do after their gold-medal performance.
"Then after that we were in front of the grandstand and looking at it, it was just so colourful, and there was so many faces that we knew," said McBean, who added she felt sorry for athletes at the Tokyo Olympics where spectators have been banned
"I know that's kind of in stark contrast to what we're doing right here. I feel badly as I say it. But if you ask me what I think about 25 years ago, that's what comes out."
McBean said she would celebrate the 25th anniversary of her gold-medal performance in double-sculls by watching Canadians compete at the Tokyo Olympics, including the women's softball team play for bronze later Tuesday.
Heddle and McBean also won gold in eights and coxless pair at the 1992 Barcelona Games, making the pair Canada’s only triple gold medallists in Summer Olympic history. They also won bronze in quadruple sculls in Atlanta.
Unfortunately, Heddle lost her six-year battle with cancer in January of this year, dying at home in Vancouver at the age of 55.
McBean said it was hard to celebrate the anniversary without her longtime rowing partner and friend. She said that in the past when they discussed their shared achievements they rarely focused on specific moments or victories but instead liked to talk about their every-day experiences of training and travelling together.
"It was more of the chronic memories than the acute memories that were something that we were really proud of," said McBean. "That's how we would remember this day, we would talk about like 'it's crazy that this happened on this day,' and then we'd go back to some story about a training camp or a competition that happened before that, that led us to this point."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2021.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press