Report Reveals Toxic Culture Within Rowing Canada’s High Performance Program
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One of Canada’s top female rowers is recovering from an eating disorder that developed in 2019.
It was her attempt to maintain a sense of control over what she said was an unhealthy relationship with former Women’s National Coach Dave Thompson that was spiraling out of control.
« I was eating my meal and then I was starting to feel really nauseous because I was starting to panic a bit, and I was thinking ‘I have to throw up’, » said the Olympic rower, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. « There was always a trigger of something that had happened or in anticipation of something that made me very nervous and anxious.
« It made me feel like I finally had control (of) something. »
The habit became a full-fledged disorder that she finally overcame with a counselor only a few months ago.
From as far back as 1904, through the heyday of Marnie McBean, Kathleen Heddle and Silken Laumann, to winning the women’s eight at the Tokyo Olympics, Canada has a rich history in rowing, with 43 Olympic medals.
But athletes say beneath the surface lies a toxic environment in the national organization, which ultimately sparked a third-party investigation by Rubin Thomlinson LLP.
Thompson was fired in February 2020, five months before the Tokyo Olympics’ original start date. The dismissal came after a complaint was filed against him in 2019 under Rowing Canada’s Abuse, Harassment and Bullying Prevention Policy.
Rubin Thomlinson’s scathing report on his investigation, released on Monday, found Thompson’s negative effect on the program and Rowing Canada’s (RCA) lack of transparency around his firing was one of the biggest issues, leaving a blow.
“Participants in the review process…expressed deep feelings of pain, anger and betrayal toward RCA as a result of these events. The effects of Mr. Thompson’s actions reverberated beyond those directly affected by its behavior, to those who witnessed it, and to those whose perceptions of RCA were affected by its response to this issue,” the report said.
Many athletes and former Rowing Canada staff have spoken to The Canadian Press out of concern that the toxic culture is being swept under the rug. They all requested anonymity.
The Canadian Press was unable to contact Thompson.
A former staff member said there was « this unprofessionalism throughout the Wild West that surrounds this organization and many sports organizations when it comes to coaching standards ».
The athlete who battled an eating disorder said Thompson chose her three years ago. Their relationship began with bullying comments about his weight, but evolved into one that included allegedly inappropriate texts about his teammates, suggestions for private « wine parties » and watching erotica. He would have kissed her once on the mouth.
« I’m really angry and I’m really sad for my teammates, » she said. « I worked and spoke with Allison Forsyth (retired skier and safe sport advocate), and she really helped me understand what happened.
« I was a really happy person when I got into rowing. I was doing my best every day and I loved working hard. And it took that away from me, » she added. « I really hated going to practice…but it also gives me peace of mind now in a weird way knowing I wasn’t crazy. »
Another former staff member said the « really toxic culture and environment » was affecting his mental health. He began keeping a record – « I called it my ‘book of Dave-isms' » – of issues he had or heard from athletes and staff.
“It was quite disconcerting to have such a document at one point, and when my vocal appeals to the administration fell on deaf ears, I knew I had to do more,” a- he declared. « Sport at the national level lacked leadership, effective communication and accountability, which led to a poor sports culture. This made it difficult to come to work every day. I am not under the illusion that the sport of elite is all about fun and games, but when there is no enjoyment for those around you, it takes a toll on your personal and professional life. »
Another Olympic rower said athletes continue to make the podium « despite » the national organization. She wondered why coach Michelle Darvill was left out after guiding the women’s eight to Olympic gold. In 2021, Darvill was named Canadian All-Sports Coach of the Year by the Coaching Association of Canada and World Rowing Coach of the Year.
« She didn’t have a job the day after we won the Olympics, » she said. “Rowing Canada terminated her contract the day after we won the Olympics, she was on a plane with us, she was no longer an employee of Rowing Canada.
Darvill is now the head coach of the Dutch women’s team, which won seven medals at the recent world championships in the Czech Republic.
« I am an Olympic champion. I will never have a bigger voice than right now, » said the athlete. « It’s the greatest power I’ll ever have, and I have to say something. I’ve seen the (RCA) culture constantly getting worse. They wear down the athletes and they wear down the coaches. And then we get into mad at athletes for talking and saying « Hey, that’s not healthy. It does not work. »
A third Olympic rower has said she would like people to be held responsible for the tumultuous few years leading up to the Tokyo Olympics.
« I think by not saying anything, we’ve done them a really big favor, » she said. « We are a niche sport. But everyone knows that in the Olympics it’s one of the most popular summer sports, we usually do well in the Olympics. And it’s important that people realize that we won a gold medal and a bronze medal, but our program, the women’s program in particular, was in a pretty toxic cycle until then.
The Canadians won two medals in Tokyo, with Caileigh Filmer and Hillary Janssens taking the women’s bronze. The women’s eight raced to bronze for Canada’s only medal at the recent world championships.
The rower who overcame the eating disorder said she hopes by speaking out she can help future athletes avoid the same pitfalls.
« I would love it for any little girl or boy, or athlete that has an internal feeling, it’s like a sour smell or a weird noise, you know something’s wrong, but you just can’t not put your finger on it, » she said. « I just want them to know, ‘Exactly the same thing is happening to me, I know it’s wrong, I can’t put all this energy, work, time, blood, sweat and tears , and having a person or a group of people take it away.' »