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Halifax’s best shot for Olympic goldBy Ryan Van Horne | Jul 30, 2012
Tags: kayaking, Mark de Jonge, Olympics
When asked to reflect on how close the final of the Men’s K1, 200-metre was, de Jonge spoke like a true engineer. The geotechnical engineer quickly rattled off the time difference between him and the silver-medal winner, along with the corresponding distance.
“One-tenth of a second; that’s 50 centimetres,” says de Jonge, who won bronze–the only medal by a Nova Scotian at the London Olympics. Going into the Games, de Jonge had not raced internationally this year because of his finger injury, but he was posting fast times. He says that can be misleading because conditions vary from course to course, which can affect times.
In the final, just 0.584 seconds separated first place from sixth place; de Jonge’s lead over the fourth-place finisher was an ultra-slim 0.031 seconds. The Maskwa paddler says he had three good races and he’s happy with that, even though he wasn’t able to replicate the “perfect race” he had during Olympic qualifying in Montreal.
After he crossed the finish line in London, de Jonge had to wait to see his name pop up on the scoreboard. When it did, he pumped his fist; he got over the initial disappointment of not winning gold or silver. “My goal was to make the podium,” says de Jonge. “I’m pretty proud of the way that I raced at the Olympics. It’s awesome to bring home a medal.”
When he arrived home in Halifax, a crowd of supporters met him at the airport. The next night, he was at the Canada-Russia Challenge at Halifax Metro Centre where he spoke to the crowd and received a personalized Team Canada jersey from Hockey Canada.
CORRECTION: In the previously published version of this story, Mark de Jonge misstated the number of centimetres between second and third place. The quote above, “50 centimetres,” is correct.
If Nova Scotia wants to pin its Olympic medal hopes on anyone, it could do no better than Mark de Jonge of Halifax.
His thick, muscled shoulders generate such incredible power and speed on the water that he would be justified in saying he is the world’s fastest kayaker—but such bravado doesn’t befit the humble de Jonge. On June 24, de Jonge zipped across the Olympic Basin in Montreal with a world-best time of 33.804 seconds in the 200-metre kayak.
“I think the time was definitely indicative of a good performance in London,” he says. That reserved comment was as much as de Jonge would venture.
Because the race was at a national trial (rather than an international event) it’s not considered a world record. Still, that didn’t mute all the talk that de Jonge wishes would slip quickly into his wake, like the eddies created by his paddle. “It’s kind of nice to be separated from the whole hype about the fast competition in Montreal,” de Jonge said. “It’s nice just to be back training and putting my nose to the grindstone.”
In a men’s 200-metre kayak race, which is measured down to the millisecond, the difference between gold and also-ran can be measured in the blink of an eye. ”Everyone wants to medal,” says de Jonge. “But you can’t really get there unless you’re thinking about the process. So, I’m just really thinking about the things I need to do to get a medal, rather than the results in the end.”
The veteran Halifax kayaker proved his Spartan work ethic after a weight-room accident in April. With Olympic trials two weeks away, de Jonge dropped an 80-pound dumbbell on his left hand and broke the middle finger. When asked what went through his mind, with his Olympic dreams in jeopardy, de Jonge was diplomatic. “It was not really something that I would repeat to the public,” he said with a chuckle. “I was obviously really frustrated.”
Scott Willgress, a strength and physiology consultant at Canadian Sport Centre Atlantic (CSCA) in Halifax, was part of a team that helped de Jonge get back on the water as soon as humanly possible (and in peak condition) thanks to rigorous dry-land training. “He was getting personal bests on a daily basis,” Willgress says, who added the rehab was based on studies that reveal people can help rehabilitate injured limbs even with one-sided exercise.
“In terms of neuromuscular adaptions, you can get it to transfer to the other side,” Willgress says. “He is insanely dedicated and has a huge work ethic. He was better than he was before.”
Since de Jonge qualified Canada’s boat for the Olympics, CanoeKayak Canada delayed Olympic trials. Fred Jobin, Canada’s men’s 200-metre kayak coach, says that was done in the best interests of the country. “Some athletes complained and some coaches complained,” he says. “We wanted to make sure that we sent the best guy to the Olympics.”
That de Jonge had proven his mettle in international competition justified the decision further. Last year, he qualified for the final in all four international events in which he raced, including a third-place finish at the Olympic test event. In late June, de Jonge was back in the water at Olympic trials in Montreal. Because he had also missed World Cup events, de Jonge had to beat his top competitor, Richard Dober, Jr., in two out of three races to go to London.
In the final on Saturday, June 23, he clocked a time of 35.89 seconds (almost a full second ahead of Dober) while paddling into a stiff headwind. “That was probably one of the best performances of his life,” Jobin says. When Jobin woke up the next day and noticed a slight tailwind, he sensed something big was about to happen in the two-man race-off between de Jonge and Dober.
“Just before he left the dock to go to the start line for the warm-up, I told him, ‘Hey try to break the 34′ and we both laughed because we knew it’s like impossible,” Jobin recalls.
The 28-year-old de Jonge then went out and did the impossible. “There was a lot of pressure in Montreal and I think it was a good run-through for me to have that pressure and have to perform, and know that I can do it,” de Jonge says.
It’s been an arduous journey for the member of Maskwa Aquatic Club on Kearney Lake. He won bronze in the K1, 500-metre at the 2003 Pan American Games, but never made it to the Olympics. After his second attempt in 2008 failed, he decided to go back to school and finish his civil engineering degree.
“I just wanted to focus on some other things,” de Jonge says, who started a work term with Stantec (then called Jacques Whitford).
He finished his degree at Dalhousie in the spring of 2009, then worked full-time as a geo-technical engineer in training until 2011. When the International Olympic Committee changed the shorter men’s kayak race from 500 metres to 200 metres, it rekindled de Jonge’s Olympic dream.
“I wasn’t really cut out as a 500-metre or 1,000-metre athlete, so I was really excited to see the 200-metre event come into the Olympics,” he says.
This year, de Jonge is one of 11 Nova Scotian athletes going to the Olympics, which begin July 27 in London. The 11-member contingent is a record, and part of the credit is being given to CSCA, which opened its doors at the Canada Games Centre in Halifax on April 2011.
Ken Bagnell, executive director of CSCA, says its flattering to hear such praise. “Our work comes after all the great work that the coaches do with these athletes and the time that the athletes put in,” Bagnell says. “But, I’d like to think that we’ve added a couple of things to the environment here, not only in Halifax, but across Atlantic Canada that gives our athletes an advantage.”
The men’s K1, 200-metre heats and semi-finals are Friday, Aug. 10, with the final schedule for Aug. 11.
CORRECTION: Due to a fact-checking error, an earlier version of this story said Mark de Jonge was a former member of Maskwa Aquatic Club. He is actually a current member of Maskwa Aquatic Club. The information above has been corrected.
Follow Mark de Jonge on Twitter: markadejonge
Read his blog: http://markdejonge.com/wordpress/
Video: Mark de Jonge wins race-off