TORONTO — In nearly three decades as Canada’s finest whitewater kayaker, David Ford has shattered stereotypes about age and high performance.
The five-time Olympian recently earned a spot on the Canadian team for this summer’s World Cup tour and the world championships. It’s a final chance to navigate the river in the red-and-white Maple Leaf, and an opportunity to bid the sport a final farewell. And it comes both after a frightening cancer diagnosis, and a couple of months after Ford turned 50.
“We’re pushing that boundary and figuring out: where is the limit of human potential?” Ford said. “And for me to be on a team where we have a young 18-year-old junior doing really well (Keenan Simpson), and then we’ve got Michael Tayler (25) who went to the last couple of Olympics doing really well. And then we have a 50-year-old who’s competing in his fifth different decade of his life. And competing well. I think it’s cool.”
Ford had stepped away from competing after missing out on the Rio Olympic team. He’d been diagnosed with skin cancer which involved his thyroid and the treatment had sapped his energy by the time he stepped into his boat at the Olympic trials.
But when he learned this year’s trials for the world championships were practically in his backyard in Canmore, Alta., he figured he’d give it one more shot.
“I was healthy and fit and felt strong enough to give it a try, and talked to Kelly (VanderBeek, his wife and former Canadian ski racer) and we made a plan as a family to try to get this one last year as sort of a farewell tour,” he said.
He won one race and was second in the other to clinch his spot on the national team.
Ford almost didn’t get to write this final chapter. Because he no longer receives any sport funding, Ford planned to use his Aeroplan reward miles — more than 170,000 he’d accumulated over the years — for his flights. But when he logged onto his account, they’d all been deleted due to 12 months of inactivity.
Aeroplan has a 12-month expiry policy, meaning the user will lose their miles if there is no accumulation or redemption activity over that period.
Aeroplan reinstated Ford’s miles after a request for comment from The Canadian Press. An Aeroplan spokesperson acknowledged he hadn’t been notified his miles were about to expire because of an issue on their end in updating his address.
Ford will open the World Cup season June 24-25 in Augsburg, Germany, where he made his national team debut and later won a silver medal at the 2003 world championships.
“It means a lot to me, that river,” Ford said.
Ford won world gold in 1999, and his best Olympic finish was fourth in 2004 in Athens. He finished sixth four years later in Beijing, but missed the 2012 London Olympics due to a ruptured elbow tendon. He’s also won over a dozen World Cup medals.
Ford will race one final time at the world championships in Pau, France, with his wife and their three-year-old son Cooper in attendance.
At 50, he’s realistic that gold isn’t in the cards. But he’s as physically strong as he’s ever been in his career, and can still give many of the young paddlers a run for their money.
Then he’ll hang up his proverbial paddle hoping his never-too-old message has resonated with Canadians.
“The big thing to me is not listening to everybody else, because there’s so many misconceptions and stereotypes about age,” Ford said. ”The key has been to just not stop moving. There’s so much sports science out there now… that a 50-year-old or a 60-year-old can go to the gym and start moving and start building back what they’ve lost all those years in the office and doing other things.
“At 30, I would never have guessed at 50 I would look like I do or be able to do what I do in the boat or on a mountain bike or anywhere,” he added. ”I’ll go out mountain biking, and I’ll get passed by a 65-year-old guys who’s just ripping it. And so kind of what’s cool about what we’re doing and what I see other athletes in their 40s and 50s doing is we’re sort of proving that the stereotype isn’t right.”