Former UBC rowers Ben Rutledge and Kyle Hamilton celebrate a triumph as part of Team Canada.
Seventy-six years ago, a young oarsman named Ned Pratt became the first UBC student to win an Olympic medal, claiming a bronze in the double sculls in 1932 in Los Angeles and triggering a decades-long succession of Olympic appearances for UBC rowers.
Rarely has an Olympic year passed since when Thunderbird crew members and former crew members – both men and women – have not been among Canada’s Olympic hopefuls. The Games of 1956, ’60 and ’64 were particularly fruitful, with crews consisting entirely of UBC students winning medals in each of those years.
Recent graduates Ben Rutledge of Cranbrook (Commerce) and Kyle Hamilton (Arts) of Richmond are currently vying to become the most recent in a long line of UBC rowers to make their mark in Olympic history. Both are members of Canada’s eight-man crew, which will go to Beijing ranked first in the world by the International Rowing Federation, following a gold-medal finish at a pre-Olympic World Cup event last month in Lucerne, Switzerland.
“We’re going there to win,’” says Hamilton from the national team training site at Elk Lake just outside Victoria. “Lucerne was a really good tester. We were three seconds faster than the second-place boat which is a huge margin at that level.”
While still attending UBC, the pair joined Canada’s national team program in 2002, and in their first year won gold medals in the eight at the World Championships in Seville, Spain. In spite of numerous international podium finishes that followed, and a similar first-place ranking going into the 2004 Olympics, Canada finished a disappointing fifth at the Athens games. Rutledge, however, is confident that experience will pay off this time around in Beijing.
“The pressure of being ranked number one is the same,” he says. “Having been there before, we’re better able to deal with that pressure.”
The biggest challenges, according to Hamilton, will come from long-time traditional contenders from the USA, Australia, England and Germany, and more recently, China. “The Chinese are really coming on strong,” he says. “These Olympics are very important to them.”
While both admit that is has been a big leap from university rowing to elite international competition, they speak reverently of their early experiences at UBC.
“The spirit and camaraderie of a crew sport that I experienced at UBC led me to pursue my path,” says Rutledge. “Rowing is very hard on your body, and the better you get at it, the harder it becomes. Without the coaches and the excitement around rowing at UBC, I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it.”