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Marnie McBean: The Interview

by Jason Winders, MES’16, PhD’16 | October 13, 2017

Marnie McBean
Marnie McBean, BA'97 (Kinesiology), LLD'03 (photo by: Catherine Farqhuarson)

One of the most decorated athletes in Canadian history – most notably as a three-time Olympic gold medalist – Marnie McBean, BA’97, LLD’03, shares what she learned from a life on the water at Western and beyond.

My ultimate thing was not to win, but to get better. Getting better all the time meant attention to detail, to learning, to figuring things out. And all that – that attention to things – took care of winning.

I was not a star athlete. I always made teams. But I was never the star. I was not a scorer or a playmaker. I was a grinder who moved things along. But I have come to understand that everyone is excellent at something; it is the lucky few who find what that is.

I had great water feel. I wasn’t a great rower at the beginning, but somebody saw something about me on the water. And that was me – it was being on the water, how rowing boats moved, knowing how a team moved together. I loved it from the first day.

Get a feel for your water. I cannot hit a three-pointer. I don’t have that kind of coordination. But I have water feel.

When you find that thing you are great at, it is easy to put time into it. It will always feel like a choice. It will always feel like you are choosing to be more.

Every day won’t be perfect. There were days I wanted to quit. But, at the end of those days, I ended up loving it more. The number of times I woke up and didn’t want to get out of bed – maybe it was a crappy day out, pouring rain. But I did get up because I had an obligation to my crew waiting at the lake. And after those two-hour rows, I came in saying they were the best rows ever.

Don’t expect your motivation to come from the same place every day. On some days, commitment doesn’t come from the fact you love it. On some days, it comes from obligation. On some days, it comes from the fact I love to win. On some days, it comes from the fact I hate to lose.

Loving to win is different than hating to lose. There is a thrill to winning – that comes from pushing. Hating to lose comes from being pulled. With hating to lose, you are using the people around you to motivate you. You are not going to let them beat you. That comes more from ego.

Understanding and accepting that any day can be a good day, but might also be a great day or be a bad day. On great days, you are out there to win. On bad days, you are trying hard not to lose.

Train for the bad days. Real champions are the ones who dig down when they are competing terribly. That stubborn determination does not let the bad days take over.

You can train your mind the same way you train your body.

I came home from Barcelona – I was only 24 – and a journalist asked me, ‘OK, Marnie, you are an Olympic champion. How will you ever top this?’ I remember staring at him. That was the saddest question I ever heard. I had never thought to limit myself. I had never thought that I had come to the end of my journey.

There is always so much to learn. Once you have achieved everything you wanted to in your career, what does that mean? Are you done? If you achieve your five-year business plan, does that mean you close in year six? Of course not. You have to come up with a new plan. You become a bit visionary. What motivates me on a daily basis is learning, being curious. There is so much left to learn.

There are thousands of things that you can do wrong in any given rowing stroke – there are thousands of things you can do right, as well. If you can come to grips with that as your motivation, then it doesn’t matter what you have achieved. So, as soon you achieve your personal best time, you’re instantly thinking about every bit you did wrong, thinking you could have been a second faster, a stroke better.

When someone asks me what I am going to do next, I know that is a ridiculous statement. There is always room to improve.

Surround yourself with people who are committed to the same lifestyle you are, who have a commitment to work hard.

You are always tightest with your crew. Your boat is your immediate family.


This article appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of Alumni Gazette
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