ST. CATHARINES, Ont. – Jason Dorland beat himself up for years after losing his Olympic race and he doesn’t want to see others do the same.
So he wrote “Chariots and Horses” in the hope that it can help coaches and athletes avoid what Dorland experienced. The book title? He was a rower to whom boats were chariots and the athletes pulling the oars were horses.
Dorland, who now coaches rowing at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ont., was in the Canadian eight that entered the 1988 Seoul Olympics final with high hopes but finished last.
“I hope that by sharing my story you may continue to develop a greater appreciation for and greater understanding of the reality that there is more to sport, to business, and to life than just winning,” he writes.
How Dorland has changed since that Olympic final.
“I wouldn’t want to know the adult version of the 24-year-old who raced in Seoul,” he says during an interview in his home across the street from Ridley. “He was a jackass.”
He wanted to beat the living daylights out of the men in rival boats in Seoul. It was macho mania. He viewed competition as war. After the war, which existed only in his head, he was a casualty.
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“There was no debrief,” he recalls. “We were never gathered together to talk about what happened. Everybody went his separate way and we were each left to deal with it.
“One of the neat things about writing the book is that I’ve reconnected with almost all the guys in the boat and for the first time in our lives we’ve talked about the race. The majority of the guys I talked to buried that experience – completely took it out of their mind, didn’t want to reflect on it. Some of them crashed harder than I did.”
Meeting and learning from world-class runner Robyn Meagher was a turning point for Dorland in more ways than one. She could celebrate after a loss when she knew she’d given her best and most effective performance and her upbeat attitude reshaped Dorland’s thinking.
They would become husband and wife.
“There’s so many things we can learn from sport,” says Dorland. “But look around at the current climate of sport and we really haven’t come that far.”
He says that when he delivers oral presentations, there often are one or two people who linger.
“They’ll come up to me and introduce themselves and it’ll come out that they were an Olympian and they’ll tell me their story and they get choked up and they start to cry,” he says.
He got an e-mail from a man who competed at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
“The fact that he didn’t win is now a deep dark secret,” says Dorland. “He just will not celebrate. The Olympic Games should be a highlight in people’s life experiences but for many it’s not. There’s just so much dysfunction in that.”
Given those sentiments, it comes as no surprise that Dorland has issue with some of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Own the Podium program.
“Own the Podium is really a prime example of everything that’s wrong with sport in Canada,” he says. “I have no problem with the initiative of Own the Podium. They provide great services to the athlete. The whole initiative is to raise big money, better coaches, better facilities, better lifestyles for the athletes – I’m totally in favour of that.
“What challenges me is the branding of Own the Podium. The name Own the Podium, you are telling the athletes that the only way we’re ever going to celebrate what you do at the Olympic Games is if you win. That’s it, and if you don’t, we don’t want to hear from you.
“It’s no wonder that you get athletes apologizing to the nation after they have an off day. My question to anybody is: When was the last time you apologized to the nation for having an off day at work? It never happens. But we have present-day athletes who apologize to us. It’s bizarre. We should be apologizing to them because we’ve allowed that culture to take over.”
High performance sport craves sponsors and they like the Own The Podium message, the 47-year-old Dorland argues.
“After Vancouver 2010 there was discussion about changing the name and one of the reasons they left it, from what I understand, is because it was attractive to their current sponsors,” says Dorland. “The current sponsors like the bravado, the confidence, the cockiness, the outright comment that, ‘I’m going to win, I’m a winner,’ and so they wanted to be associated with that.
“There’s a prime example of corporate interests or money coming before the best interests of the athlete.”
There’s a “much cleaner way” which could use a title such as Olympic Journey 2010 or Olympic Journey 2012.
“We could become an international leader in how we prepare our athletes for the Games, how we support them during the Games, and how we debrief them afterwards,” says Dorland. “I don’t think there is a country doing it very well and I think we could be that country.
“But that was shot down. No surprise. I just think that if we made it more about the journey of the athlete – how they prepare and train – not only might we own the podium more but we’d have a healthier culture around sport. We wouldn’t have kids growing up in a culture where it is all about winning, all about owning the podium.”
So many children who get into organized sport leave by the time they are teens and one of the reasons is the pressure to win.
“I was the poster child for Own the Podium in Seoul. Own the Podium is wonderful when you’re winning. When it doesn’t work, who picks up the pieces? I want someone to answer me that question. Who takes care of all the athletes who go home, don’t get the articles written about them, don’t end up on a cereal box, and carry that around for the rest of their lives? Who takes care of them?
“I won’t argue that focusing on winning can’t work but what I question is what happens when it doesn’t? If everything doesn’t line up in that one moment and you lose, what are you left with? What is it you can take away from it and celebrate?”
His critics might say he has a warm and fuzzy approach to coaching, but his 16- and 17-year-old rowers might disagree.
“If they say my guys won’t be tough enough, that’s a crock,” he says. “My approach is a strategic approach.
“I believe that when you draw a line in the sand you have told the body and the mind that that’s as far as we’re going to go and it’s done. There’s no line in the sand when I coach. I continually ask my athletes to show up every day and redefine their line.
“In essence, you open the possibility of being better than you ever thought you were. If you never define what the win is, you open up far more possibilities. This is the thing I find now that works so wonderfully well with my athletes. They discover things about themselves that might not have otherwise done if all it was about was beating the guy beside them. What if you’re capable of a lot more than beating the guy beside you? You’re never going to discover that if all you’re thinking about is beating the guy beside you. That’s what I do.
“Much of my philosophy revolves around taking care of the athlete and making sure that if something goes sideways on race day they’re going to be able to live with themselves. It’s also about building excellence. I believe in high performances and holding the bar really high. The difference in my approach is that if my athletes show up and have the best race of their lives and they get beat they can still walk away from that race able to celebrate something. If everything was about having to win the race to have something to celebrate then, yeah, they’re devastated, and I haven’t done my job.
“As coaches, there has to be something more, something bigger, than winning to our job. My job isn’t to create winning crews. My job is to change lives.”
By concentrating on the process rather than the outcome, an athlete is not less competitive, says Dorland. He’s merely smarter than those going to war to win.
Everybody likes to win and the 16- and 17-year-olds he coaches are no different.
“If you ask any of the guys I’m coaching in the heavy eight if they would like to be the fastest crew in Canada, they’ll tell you they want to win, and they recognize that the approach we’re taking is a very good strategy in order to achieve that.”
Dorland is passing on to them the reality that in sports, as in life, it’s all about the journey.
Dorland led crews to national titles while coaching at Shawinigan Lake School in British Columbia, where he co-founded the organic, natural food company Left Coast Naturals before moving back east to coach at Ridley, where his father was a teacher and coach.
Chariots and Horses, 237 pages, Heritage House Publishing, $22.95 paperback.