By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Once a reulctant sculler, Kingston's Rob Gibson will race for Canada in the men's single at the Pan Am Games
ST. CATHARINES, July 8—For Rob Gibson, there’s not a trace of ambiguity.
“I hated it,” he says emphatically, of the early days of trying to row a single scull.
After enjoying success as a sweep oarsman at Regiopolis Notre Dame, then Kingston Collegiate, and after that at the University of Washington, Gibson was accustomed to the camaraderie of a team, the stability of a big boat. The notion of training in a single was foreign to him, but that’s what they did on the national team and, initially, Gibson didn’t enjoy it one bit.
“I was terrible,” he said. “I was slow; I was one of the slowest on the team. I flipped numerous times. I felt like I was not making any progress. I actually kept getting slower in it.”
Interesting, thought Howie Campbell.
“He’s done very well in it for a guy who hates it,” grinned Campbell, a coach with the Canadian team at the Pan American Games, where Gibson, with a relatively new-found affinity for the craft, will represent Canada in both the single and quadruple sculls, beginning Saturday.
All the men on the national team train in singles, whether they’re in sweep crews—two hands on one oar, as in the eight, four and pair—or sculling—one hand on each of two oars, as in the quad, double and single. “Rob is not alone in that view of all the time we spend in singles,” Campell assured, but he said it’s an effective teaching mechanism.
“The single is a great boat to develop the individual technical changes,” he said. “I think you will find that probably the biggest stumbling block switching from a large boat to a single is it’s very unstable, but that’s what makes it such a great platform for honing technique, and why we spend so much time in it.
“It seems to people like, ‘Wow, you’ve gone from this big boat to this little boat,’ but a skilled oarsperson can pretty much row in any boat we ask them to.”
Ultimately Gibson proved that to be true, but it wasn’t easy for a man who had enjoyed tremendous success as a sweeper. He was part of the Olympic silver medal-winning men’s eight in London in 2012, the bronze-medal crew at the world championships in 2011 and silver medal-winning crews at world championships in 2009 (men’s eight) and 2006 (men’s four). “I never wanted to be a part of (sculling),” he said. “It was just a means to an end, to be part of the men’s eight.”
Since London, Gibson has done most of his international racing in the four, most recently at last year’s world championships in Holland, where the Canadian boat was fifth, but looking ahead to the 2016 Olympics, the national team reviewed its personnel before resuming training last fall.
“(We looked at) the individual skill sets of the individual athletes, and where they would best suit the ambitions and goals of the entire squad,” Campbell said. “Rob was in the four last year, but with the new talent coming in, the way chips fell, Rob was asked to help the quad.
“We were really trying to get the eight best men representing Canada in those two crews. It’s a real credit to the men and to Martin (coach Martin McElroy) the way that’s been presented and absorbed by the guys. It’s a case of, look, it’s a small squad, a very talented squad, and we need to use the pieces in the best place.”
By now, Gibson was feeling more comfortable in the single. “Last fall, things really started coming for me,” he said. He won the national trial in the single in November and through the winter he maintained that speed and he won the spring trial as well, which was the selection competition for the summer team.
“When you start getting success, you start to enjoy it a little bit more,” he said. “I was always good enough to make the team as a sweeper, but I was not one of the outstanding sweep oarsmen. Sculling just clicked for me in the last year and now I want to see where I can go with it.”
The skills translate reasonably well, Campbell said. “It’s not a big leap (from one to the other),” he said, and people successfully transition from sweep rowing to sculling “probably more often than people think.” He cited the example of Derek Porter, a member of the Olympic gold-medal crew at Barcelona in 1992 who the next summer won the world championship in the single. “A lot people start off in the sport in sweep rowing just because it’s the way clubs can get a lot of people on the water in one boat.”
Gibson, 29, says sculling is proving to be better for his body. “It’s more a little more linear,” he said. “With sweeping, my one side would get overloaded and, as a starboard side rower, I’d have problems with the right side of my back. Now everything’s a bit more symmetrical.”
Making the switch to sculling isn’t the only crossroads Gibson negotiated in the past couple of years. He first had to choose whether to continue rowing at all.
“I was pretty certain I was going to be finished with it after 2012,” he said. “I went back to Kingston for seven or eight months and then I thought I’d go back in the summer of 2013. I was really enjoying the new coach, Martin, and seeing what his vision was, which way we were headed for this quadrennial.
“The lifestyle was too unique to pass up. I thought I had a couple more years in me and I thought I’d see if I could reach my potential. I had more to give. Pan Ams in Toronto was a huge reason I wanted to come back. The chance to race in Canada was really appealing to me, especially in St. Catharines. This is where I raced most of my big high school events when I first took up the sport.”
Like most Canadian athletes, Gibson is excited at the prospect of competing in a major competition on home turf, or in this case, water. “I’ve been racing internationally since 2004 and this will be my first time racing in Canada,” he said. “It will be nice just to feel at home in the off hours when we’re not racing. Having that sense of home will be a big advantage.”
Gibson said he doesn’t fear the possibility that unprecedented proximity to family and friends might prove to be a distraction. For one thing, the rowers aren’t in the athletes village; they’re ensconced in the dormitories of Brock University, “so we’re pretty secluded from all the stuff happening in downtown Toronto.”
Besides, he said, most of the athletes learned how to behave at important competitions long ago. “Once the racing gets going, it’s laser-like focus,” he said. “It’s a business trip for us. We train too hard to get distracted this late in the game.”
Saturday morning’s heat will be Gibson’s first taste of international competition in a single.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “The Cuban sculler is one of the fastest in the world right now. He’s going to be the favourite to win. I’m just looking to progress through the regatta and hope to learn as much as I can.
“My main focus is still the world championship at the end of the summer, because that’s the Olympic qualifier. I’m just trying to take the opportunity to learn as much as I can and enjoy the moment.”
That should be easier, now that Gibson has gotten past loathing the single, and embraced it.
“You’re really on your own; there’s no one to blame when something goes wrong,” he said. “Conversely, when things go well it gives you a sense of pride, an appreciation for what you’ve accomplished.”
Racing in the men’s single begins Saturday, with heats at 10:35 a.m. and a repechage at 2:45 p.m. The final is scheduled for Wednesday morning at 10:15.
Heats in the quadruple sculls, where Gibson will row with Julian Bahain of Laval, Que., Matthew Buie of Duntroon, Ont., and Will Dean of Kelowna, B.C., will be Sunday morning, with the final Tuesday at 10:45 a.m.