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Engineering excellence

Methodical training, focus and determination power paddler Mark de Jonge to the top of his sport

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Photo: Jeff Cooke

Photo: Jeff Cooke

Mark de Jonge has fashioned precious metals from hard work and skill, so it would be fitting if he were a metallurgical engineer. Alas, he’s a geotechnical engineer, more concerned with creating a solid footing to build on. That’s even more appropriate.

Using this approach in training helped the kayaker win bronze at the 2012 Olympics in London, silver at the 2013 world championship and, this past August, set a record in the K-1, 200-metre as he won gold at the world championships in Moscow.

For de Jonge, building that foundation starts with planning in great detail, and not just his training regimen.

“I see everything in my life contributing to a good performance,” de Jonge says.

He points to sponsorship commitments, sports psychology, nutrition, and, of course, time at home, which involves lots of training, working 15 hours a week for Stantec Consulting Ltd., and, this past summer, getting married.

Time in Halifax gives his life a vital balance, so he always starts each year with that in mind. “It’s not really healthy, or even effective, to approach training as the only thing that you have in your life,” de Jonge says. “There are a lot of other things emotionally and mentally that affect you.”

But de Jonge loves to train and there are few who train with more vigour, says Tim Hornsby, an American kayaker who relocated to Halifax and trained five days a week with de Jonge through the fall. “Mark is capable of going as hard as anybody, but when it’s time to focus on technique, he’s incredibly focussed,” Hornsby says.

Sometimes, an elite-level athlete maintains that competitive drive in practice, but de Jonge switches it off and concentrates on the specific goal for the training session. “He just wants to be the best on the day that it matters,” says Hornsby.

Peter Crowe, managing principal of geotechnical engineering at Stantec, recognized this when de Jonge was a summer student at the firm in 2008. “He has an ability to compartmentalize thought processes and a laser-like focus to shut other things off,” says Crowe, who was impressed by how de Jonge did his paperwork every day and the effort he put into his summer project inspecting construction sites. “He’s wired differently than most people that I run into,” Crowe adds. “His analytical thought process is at a different level.”

In 2009, de Jonge graduated from Dalhousie and Crowe brought him on board. “I honestly didn’t have a job for him, but I didn’t want him to go work someplace else,” says Crowe, who hired him as a “field guy” hoping that he’d be able to find a permanent job for him and his cool demeanour, which Crowe says is rare in the high-stress industry of engineering. “I don’t have anybody else like him,” says Crowe, who didn’t know de Jonge was a paddler when he first joined the company.

After graduating from Dalhousie in 2009, de Jonge started working toward his professional certification. Then the IOC added the 200-metre event, his specialty, for the 2012 Olympics in London. For de Jonge, who had won medals for Canada at the 2003 and 2007 Pan Am Games but failed to qualify for the 2004 or 2008 Olympics, it was an enticing development.

Crowe encouraged de Jonge to chase his Olympic dream by giving him the flexibility to work on a casual basis. Stantec has also become his sponsor and de Jonge travels the country to give motivational talks to its employees. His mantra is that the key to achieving goals is to make a plan, but it also takes a willingness to experiment to see what might work better. Despite winning a bronze medal in London, de Jonge was not satisfied. Earlier that summer, he had set what would have been a world-record, but since it was at Canadian Olympic trials, and not in the final of an international meet, it didn’t count. He knew he could be the best, but he had to become more consistent.

“We took some risks after London with the training program,” says de Jonge, who quickly set his sights on Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and set down his four-year plan.

He adjusted his training regimen to do more short, intense sprints in the five- to 30-second range, as opposed to longer endurance work, traditionally lasting more than 30 minutes. He also tinkered with his equipment to see how that affected his speed.

When he’s not on the water, de Jonge works in the weight room and also swims and runs. It’s all about balance, which makes training more effective and less monotonous. “We’re always refining, but the big-picture stuff is pretty well taken care,” de Jonge. “Now, we can confidently move into next two years knowing what works and what doesn’t.”

Hornsby, who is also an engineer, says he and de Jonge sometimes get pretty scientific when bouncing ideas off each other during workouts. “It leads to some pretty crazy discussions and goes places that paddling doesn’t normally go,” Hornsby says. He won’t share any of de Jonge’s trade secrets, but says his adventurous research methods help.

Hornsby says he’s learned a lot from de Jonge and describes him as a great role model and ambassador. Despite his busy schedule, de Jonge serves on the board of directors of his home club at Maskwa and is always willing to lend a hand, such as helping junior paddlers Liam O’Brien and Alex Scott with their physics homework.

“He really cares about the kids and the future of the sport,” Hornsby says.

Hornsby says he’d love to see de Jonge write a senior engineering thesis on kayaking when he’s done his competitive career.

If he does, he’ll likely have to do it in his spare time because Crowe has no doubt that when de Jonge decides to leave paddling for engineering, he’ll make a seamless transition to full-time work. “We wouldn’t have him here if I didn’t feel he wouldn’t be a key part of our practice,” Crowe says. “He’s a solid engineer.”

IN THE BEGINNING

When Mark de Jonge joined Maskwa Aquatic Club on Kearney Lake, just up the road from the family home in Sherwood Park, the family had just moved to Halifax from Calgary and his parents thought it would be a great way for the 13-year-old de Jonge to make some friends. His dad, Boris, also thought if he learned to paddle, they could take some canoe trips and go camping. The younger de Jonge loved paddling right away and his weekends were soon busy competing in regattas. “The next year, I was winning races,” says de Jonge, whose competitive career took off, meaning he’s rarely had a free weekend in the summer to go camping.

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