The producers had planned to call their made-for-TV drama
Goldengirl, until they discovered a 1979 movie, a bad flick
starring Susan Anton, with the same name. They settled on Golden
Will: The Silken Laumann Story. So what if it sounded silly. It
was better than the more realistic My Word, What a Third! or On
Golden Pond: Silken's Glorious Bronze.
This is an article from the July 21, 1996 issue
In truth the only things golden about Canadian rower Silken
Laumann at the Barcelona Games four years ago were her hair and
toothy smile. On Aug. 2, 1992, her countrymen set their alarm
clocks for the wee hours of the next morning, and when they
awoke they turned on their TVs to witness a miracle. But
miracles don't finish third, which is where Laumann placed in
the single sculls final.
Even so, she had rowed a race that transcended gold, silver,
bronze. "The performance," says Fred Loek, her former coach,
"spoke to people's imaginations."
Seventy-eight days before that Olympic final, during warmups for
a regatta in Essen, Germany, the scull of a coxless German
pair's boat cut across Laumann's path. Its pointed bow ripped
into her lower right leg, shredding nerves, shearing muscles and
fracturing the fibula. "Slides from the operating room make it
look like a chisel had gone from the knee inward and a flap of
her leg had fallen down," recalls Marilyn Copland, a close
friend who changed Laumann's dressing six times a day for five
weeks after the surgery.
Initial reports said Laumann had no hope of competing in
Barcelona. But, in fact, while being transferred by ambulance to
a trauma center a few hours later, Laumann told fellow Canadian
rower John Wallace, who was then her boyfriend and is now her
husband, "I don't want to miss the Olympics."
"Most people are willing to get on board someone else's dreams,"
Laumann's sister, Daniele, says. Who dared tell Silken no?
Less than a month after the accident Laumann rolled her
wheelchair to her shell on Elk Lake, near her home in Victoria,
B.C., crawled into the boat (in which the foot stretchers had
been adjusted to accommodate her injured leg) and rowed away.
Seven weeks later, having already displayed a will more steely
than golden, the question was, Could she win in Barcelona?
She didn't, of course, but only in the narrowest sense of what
With 250 meters remaining in the single sculls final, Anne
Marden of the U.S., the 1988 silver medalist, rowed past Laumann
into third as she sprinted for the finish. But as oxygen debt
reduced Laumann's thoughts to telegraphic fragments, she upped
her stroke rate per minute from 38 to 40 in the last 100 meters
and beat Marden to the wire. Today Laumann's leg, after seven
operations, has a principal scar running from mid-calf to ankle,
from which small tributaries of cicatrix extend. Marden's scars
from having been overtaken by Laumann are not so readily
apparent, but they run deep. "I'll be devastated about that race
for the rest of my life," says Marden.
After her courageous performance--how many other Olympians had
needed a cane to get around?--Laumann held a press conference
under a tree. A small grin of satisfaction settled on her lips.
She finally excused herself and, leaning on Wallace, a member of
Canada's gold medal eights crew, limped off into the future. Or,
at the very least, to a nap.
"She made friends with pain," said Anita DeFrantz, an
International Olympic Committee member from the U.S. and a
bronze medalist in the women's eights at the '76 Games.
DeFrantz was more accurate than she probably knew.
On a bleak afternoon last December, Laumann was lifting weights
at the Keating Fitness Centre near Victoria. This was a
maintenance day, before she headed to San Diego to begin 16 to
18 weekly workouts under the supervision of Mike Spracklen, the
Canadian men's coach from 1990 to '93.
Rowing is a jealous sport, a nag in its demand for constant
attention. Even after her extraordinary race in Barcelona,
Laumann couldn't desert this master. If she were the type who
could walk away, she never would have rowed to a bronze in the
first place. "Rowing kept me honest," she says. "It's so
black-and-white. You can't hide. Before '92 I was a strong
person, but I wondered how strong I would be if something bad
happened. Then something bad did happen and I didn't wallow in
sorrow. I just figured, O.K., what do I do now? Sport strips you
from all barriers, from all social conventions, and you see
people for who they really are."
Sometimes you go looking for pain, by working with someone like
Spracklen, or sometimes pain finds you, as it did in Essen.
Laumann had already sensed it as a girl, the second of Hans and
Sigitta Laumann's three children. She describes Hans as
old-fashioned, disciplined, willful and gregarious; Sigitta, who
on Oct. 17, 1959, had walked across railroad tracks from East
Berlin into West Berlin when no one was looking, is artistic,
energetic, fun-loving but moody. They were married in 1960 and
emigrated to Canada a few months later. The marriage turned
"I always felt my mom was disappointed by life," says Laumann,
32, whose parents separated when she was a teenager and divorced
in 1989. "She had taken some hard knocks in East Germany, and
life never unfolded the way she thought it should in the West.
When my parents broke up, I was forced to gain an independence.
At a young age I felt I was boss of my life, determined to write
my own script. But I learned you can't write your own script,
because there are things beyond your control."
Sometimes life does get in the way. Laumann might have been a
star middle-distance runner, but as a teenager her legs sprouted
like beanstalks, and she grew so quickly that she believed she
had no future in track. Daniele, an accomplished rower, urged
her to switch to sculling. Within a year Silken was competing in
the world championships. Within two years she and Daniele won a
bronze in the double sculls at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Was this painful? "We were not terribly mature sisters," says
Daniele Hart, now a lawyer for Veterans Affairs in Halifax, Nova
Scotia. "I was not as committed to the competition as I was to
the sport. Unlike Silken, it wasn't as necessary for me to have
a gold medal, and that led to problems." Silken fared even worse
with Kay Worthington, who would win gold medals in the coxless
fours and eights in Barcelona. When they rowed the double sculls
at the 1988 Seoul Games, Laumann and Worthington were seventh.
Spracklen changed Laumann's rowing fortunes, after she had
traveled from Mississauga, Ont., to Victoria in February 1990 to
meet with him. In the car on the way back from Laumann's first
workout, Spracklen casually said, "She'll medal in the worlds."
Five months later, after sessions under Spracklen that at times
left her too tired to even speak, Laumann finished second at the
world championships, a jump of five places from the previous
year. In '91 Laumann won the worlds to establish herself as the
Olympic favorite. Then a German boat rewrote the script.
Spracklen, an Englishman who now coaches the U.S. men's sweep
team, is not given much to sentiment. After she first rowed for
him following the accident, Laumann was crushed when Spracklen's
face registered concern with her times and no delight over the
fact that she was even on the water. Indeed, on the morning of
her Olympic final, he was convinced Laumann would win. "I was
disappointed when she didn't," Spracklen says. "Not disappointed
for me. For her."
After taking a year off, Laumann felt the same way. The job of
being a full-time inspiration to a nation was swell--she made
appearances and gave motivational talks for IBM and Subaru--but
unfinished business remained in rowing. After what she had
endured leading up to Barcelona, life should have been easier.
It wasn't. She was disqualified from the 1994 world
championships for two false starts, but that was only a prelude
to her pain.
Laumann failed a drug test at the 1995 Pan American Games in
Argentina. Given the ethos of rowers in general, and Laumann in
particular, the notion that she was a drug cheat seemed absurd.
"Here she is in my kitchen, trying to sort out the mess after
the Pan Ams, and she's drinking herbal tea," Copland recalls.
"She's so antidrug, she won't even have caffeine."
Laumann had indeed taken a banned substance, pseudoephedrine,
which is in Benadryl Allergy and Decongestant capsules. The
positive test turned out to be the result of miscommunication, a
failure to differentiate between Benadryl Decongestant and
Benadryl Allergy and Decongestant. It was a mix-up that began
when, according to Laumann, Richard Backus, the Canadian rowing
team's physician, was not specific enough in differentiating
between the variations of Benadryl when he suggested what
medication might help her sleep on the flight to Argentina.
Another Canadian doctor at the Pan Ams cleared Laumann to take
Benadryl Allergy and Decongestant to treat a cold. The mistakes
cost Laumann and her three teammates in the quad a gold medal
and, momentarily at least, their reputations.
Laumann lashed out at Backus, who had mapped out her
rehabilitation program after the accident in Germany. "I should
have been more coolheaded, but he never took enough
responsibility," says Laumann, who was not suspended by FISA,
rowing's international governing body, after failing the test.
"He was helpful in my recovery, but now it's hard to have any
confidence in him."
Backus acknowledges there was a misunderstanding, but he also
believes Laumann should take some responsibility. Regardless, in
his Victoria office, Backus still has an autographed picture of
Laumann. The inscription: "Thanks for taking some risks." Backus
says it indicates how he believed, when others didn't, that
Laumann could fully recover from the accident if she followed
Entering the single sculls competition on Lake Lanier in
Gainsville, Ga., this week, with preliminaries beginning today
and the final set for Saturday, Laumann is the favorite to win
the gold. "She's rowing the best she ever has," Spracklen says.
"She's making an ever bigger commitment, paying more attention
to technique." The leg is imperfect--her balance is faulty, the
ankle swells, she can't run far--but she has come to accept it,
looking at it with quizzical detachment when she views it at all.
She befriended this pain long ago and moved on. The next time
producers call Laumann golden, it should be cinema verite.