Canadian athletes dig deep

LONDON — A gut-wrenching final 500 metres that left rowers doubled over with elation and exhaustion.

LONDON — A gut-wrenching final 500 metres that left rowers doubled over with elation and exhaustion. A frantic push to the wall punctuated with a fist smash into the pool.

Canadian athletes dug deep at the London Olympics on Wednesday to keep the country on pace for its medal target thanks to clutch performances both on the water and in the water.

The men’s eight got Day 5 off to a good start with an inspiring silver-medal performance before swimmer Brent Hayden finally got his hands on an Olympic medal with a third-place finish in the 100-metre freestyle.

The native of Mission, B.C., narrowly beat out two competitors to earn the final spot on the podium.

“Tonight was just (about) digging down deep right into my soul,” said Hayden. “I had that extra push to push me beyond what I was capable of.”

It was the theme of the day for a Canadian team that now has a six total medals — one silver and five bronze. The Canadian Olympic Committee set a target of finishing 12th in total medals at the end of the Games. Through five days of competition, the country was tied for 11th.

The men’s eight appeared to be in danger of missing the podium at the midway point of the gruelling 2,000-metre race and it sat third with just 500 metres to go.

But the group found an extra gear as the finish line neared, pushing past Britain and ending up just behind the Germans.

“I said ’Guys put on your hard hats. It’s time to go to work,”’ coxswain Brian Price said of the final stretch.

“And they went to work. It was all about just work, work, work. Every stroke.”

Added Jerry Brown: “I knew it was tight right across the field coming in that last 250 (metres). I started seeing black spots, that’s when you just get tunnel vision. … I just emptied it, we all just emptied it.”

The Canadian eight won gold at the 2008 Games in Beijing but only had three returning members from that crew — Toronto’s Andrew Byrnes, Victoria’s Malcolm Howard and Price of Belleville, Ont. — in the London boat.

The newcomers were Brown of Cobourg, Ont., Will Crothers and Rob Gibson of Kingston, Ont., Conlin McCabe of Brockville, Ont., Doug Csima of Oakville, Ont., and Gabe Bergen of 100 Mile House, B.C.

Canada had a sluggish start to the regatta, finishing last in its heat and effectively shutting down late in the race. But they bounced back to place second in their repechage behind Britain and advance to the final.

The Canadian women’s eight goes for gold Thursday, with the Americans their main gold medal rivals.

Hayden has long dreamed of stepping on an Olympic podium, but fell short in previous attempts in Athens and Beijing.

His time finally arrived in a race where he finished behind American Nathan Adrian and Australian James Magnussen.

“There are so many times when you can dream of something but a million out of a million and one times it won’t come true,” said Hayden.

“This was one of the things that I was very fortunate as a human being to have happen to me.”

It was only fitting that the 28-year-old ended up receiving his medal from IOC member Dick Pound, the only other Canadian man to qualify for a 100 freestyle final at the 1960 Games.

Cyclist Clara Hughes, meanwhile, capped her remarkable Olympic career with a fifth-place finish in the women’s time trial.

Hughes, a six-time medallist at the Games, was almost a minute behind gold medal winner American Kristin Armstrong. However, she was completely satisfied with her final performance on the biggest stage in sports.

“Honestly there were just people better than me,” said Hughes, a Winnipeg native who lives in Glen Sutton, Que. “I wasn’t good enough, that’s the bottom line. I felt good. I had a great race. My power was awesome and that’s it.

“I took every corner as fast as I could. I rode smooth, I rode strong.”

Denise Ramsden of Yellowknife finished 19th.

Hughes and former long-track speedskating teammate Cindy Klassen share the honour of being the country’s most decorated Olympians. Hughes won two cycling medals at the 1996 Games in Atlanta and went on to capture four more in speedskating over the last three Winter Olympics.

Victoria native and Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal was Canada’s lone competitor in the men’s 44-kilometre time trial, but he was never a factor and finished 28th.

Against all odds, the women’s badminton team of Alex Bruce and Michele Li remains in the hunt for a medal after that competition was rocked by scandal.

The Toronto duo was re-entered into the competition after four teams were expelled for throwing matches and went on to defeat Leanne Choo and Renuga Veeran of Australia 21-9, 18-21, 21-18 to advance to the semifinals.

That guarantees that they’ll have a chance to play for the country’s first ever medal in badminton.

“We wanted to go out here and put everything on the table, seize the moment and relive the Olympic experience again,” said Bruce.

Among other notable performances Wednesday:

— The women’s 4×200-metre freestyle swim team placed fourth.

— Alexandre Despatie of Laval, Que., and Regina’s Reuben Ross finished sixth in the three-metre synchronized event. It came just six weeks after Despatie suffered a concussion when he smashed his head on a diving board in competition.

— The women’s basketball team was beaten 64-60 by France.

Other Canadian athletes set themselves up for a chance to earn hardware in the coming days.

In rowing, Victoria’s Dave Calder and Scott Frandsen of Kelowna, B.C., advanced to the final of the men’s pairs, while swimmer Martha McCabe of Toronto earned a spot in the final of the 200-metre breaststroke.