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At the age of twelve in Mississauga, Ontario, Silken Laumann started to plan for her moment of glory as she worshipped her idol, Nadia Comaneci, the "perfect 10" gymnast in the 1976 Olympics. Although Silken's size - 5 feet 10 inches, 110 pounds - prevented her from becoming the next Olympian gymnast, Nadia's passion inspired her to go out for track. Later, she tried rowing at the urging of her older sister, Daniele, a member of the National Rowing Team.
Four months later she too joined the Team and in the next two years triumphed with a gold medal in quadruple sculls at the U.S. Championships, a gold medal in single sculls at the Pan American Games, and a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics in the double sculls with Daniele.
Plagued by back problems and a pinched sciatic nerve for the next two years, ongoing physiotherapy and prudent training empowered Silken to go on to win a second Pan American Games gold medal at the 1987 Games in Indianapolis. Three years later she earned a silver medal in single sculls at the 1990 World Championships. That same year she decided to move to Victoria, B.C. in order to train year round with former British coach, Mike Spracklen. In 1991 when she captured the World Championship in single sculls, Canada became recognized as the new power in women's rowing.
Silken was then showered with civic and corporate awards; the ultimate being the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's Outstanding Athlete of 1991, putting her along side previous recipients Kurt Browning and Wayne Gretzky on the honour role.
She was expected to be the obvious gold medallist for the next year's Olympic Games in Barcelona. However, circumstances on a fateful May 15, 1992 day in Essen, Germany, intervened. During a warm-up race her shell was hit broadside by a German double sculls crew. After five operations in a ten-day period and a skin graft, doctors pronounced her Olympic career over, indicating the possibility of her being unable to row even recreationally again. Her incredible courage and motivation proved them wrong. Following a three-week hospital stay (12 days in Germany; 11 days in Victoria), at her insistence, she was helped from her wheelchair into her racing shell by her husband, John Wallace, an Olympic Gold medallist in the men's eights. Although she couldn't walk, she could row and once again had that wonderful sensation of being able to fly on water. With five weeks until the Barcelona Games, she just focussed on what she could do each day and didn't dwell on becoming a world champion. Her determination and hard work prevailed as she earned a place in the final and amazingly, pushing herself to the limit, won a bronze medal. That year she was chosen Canadian of the Year by the Canadian Club.
Taking a year off from competitive rowing to fully allow her injury to heal, she used the time to share her motivating story in public-speaking appearances, co-authored Rowing and worked with her sponsors. She also won both the Meritorious Service Cross and Women Who Make a Difference awards.
In 1994, she won the Rotsee Regatta in Switzerland and represented Canada as the only female single at the World Rowing Championships in Indianapolis. Although she won her semi-final heat, she was disqualified from the finals for a double false start. (The World Governing Body for Rowing decided to introduce a new set of starting instructions during these Championships which resulted in 60 false starts!) She went on to win a silver medal at the World Championships the next year.
During the 1995 Pan American Games in Argentina, Silken and her three crewmates were stripped of their gold medals after she tested positive for an over-the-counter cold remedy which contained a banned substance. She was assured by the Canadian physician at the site that it was all right to take Benadryl to treat a cold. It was. Unfortunately, she took Benadryl Allergy and Decongestant capsules which were not okay, containing pseudoephedrine, a decongestant which also acts as a stimulant. Silken accepts responsibility for the inadvertent error in her choice of cold medicine but also believes the doctor failed her by not differentiating between the two Benadryl preparations. This cost her not only the gold medal but also temporarily damaged her reputation. However, all this did not stop her from being awarded the Canadian Olympic Order that same year.
In her final competitive race at the July 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Silken won a silver medal in single sculls. Three years later on March 16, 1999 in Victoria, B.C. she announced her retirement saying: "The competitive desire is very important to me...I no longer have that element...My gut keeps saying there is another path right now."
In addition to the awards previously mentioned, Silken has also been honoured in other exceptional ways. In 1994 the Silken Laumann Rose, a red miniature, was created in Victoria in time for the Commonwealth Games and in 1995 a street in Mississauga was named Silken Laumann Way. In 1997 she won the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award as well as Honourary Doctorate of Laws from University of Victoria, McMaster University and University of Windsor. In 1998 she was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and in 1999 she won the Thomas Keller Medal for an Outstanding Career in Rowing.
The intense focus on excellence Silken possessed throughout her rowing career is still very evident in everything she undertakes. She is deft in juggling her varied current commitments. Although she is in great demand as a motivational speaker, and is very involved in charitable activities and corporate partnerships, she sees mothering her son William (born June 1997), daughter Kate (born November 1999), and Banner, the family's golden retriever, as her most important work. Giving birth reminded her of the secret of living. "You have to find a balance between working toward your goals of tomorrow and today." Parenthood has changed her priorities. The first part of her life was about her. Now she wants to make a difference and give back. In her inspiring public speaking engagements she states that the Barcelona bronze medal has become her touchstone. "It means using your unique abilities in a set of circumstances that you do not choose. In life, as in sports, we seldom get to choose our own circumstances."
Deachman, Bruce. - "Message of Commitment". - Ottawa citizen. - (April 29, 2000). - P. F1-F2
Farber, Michael. - Battle scarred : Canadian rower Silken Laumann has fought through pain - in and out of competition [online]. - CNN Sports illustrated. - [Cited June 14, 2000]. - Access: http://cnnsi.com/events/1996/olympics/daily/july21/laum.html
Gains, Paul. - "Three's a crowd". - Women's sports and fitness. - Vol. 18 (July/August 1996). - P. 84
"Going the distance : a conversation with Silken Laumann and Rick Hansen". - Doubletake [video recording]. - Vancouver : Cable Public Affairs Channel, 1999. - 1 cassette, 60 min., BETA SP. - Col. - CPAC Archive 99-132
Golden will : the Silken Laumann story [video recording]. - Produced by Carol Reynolds Productions in association with Baton Broadcasting. - Toronto : Carol Reynolds Productions, 1995. - 1 cassette, 95 min., VHS 1/2 in. - Col. - Held by National Archives of Canada. - Item number 258165
Guly, Christopher. - "Take setbacks in stride, Olympic winner advises". - Ottawa citizen. - (May 2, 2000). - P. A8
Laumann, Silken ; Wharton, Calvin ; King, Peter. - . - Toronto : Stoddart, 1994. - 152 p.
Laumann, Silken. - "Foreword". - Cantwell, Susan. - Mind over matter : personal choices for a lifetime of fitness. - Toronto : Stoddart, 1999. - P. XI-XIII
"The power of positive skulling : Silken Laumann Canada : Rowing". - New York times magazine. - Section 6. - (June 23, 1996). - P. 30
Robinson, Laura. - "Silken Laumann". - She shoots, she scores : Canadian perspectives on women in sport. - Toronto : Thompson Educational Publications, 1997. - P. 45-50
Strudwick, Leslie. - "Silken Laumann". - Athletes. - New York : Crabtree Publishing, 1999. - P. 44