Photo Credit: Katie Steenman Images, courtesy of Rowing Canada Aviron.
Hometown Heroes is a new series profiling members of Canada’s National Rowing Team. From now until the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the athletes from Canada’s two National Rowing Training Centers will be battling for spots on the Canadian Team.
A Family Legacy
History has a tendency of repeating itself. Sometimes that’s a bad thing. Occasionally that’s a great thing.
Similar to the repetitious nature of rowing, Conlin McCabe’s family history also has a repetitive element to it, a common thread that links one generation to the next.
His great grandfather, Michael O’Shaughnessy, could never have envisioned the wheels he was setting into motion when he started rowing in1906.
A newly arrived immigrant from Ireland, O’Shaughnessy wasted no time in picking up an oar with other Brockvillians at the then twelve year old Brockville Rowing Club.
One hundred and six years later, his great-grandson, Conlin McCabe, won an Olympic medal on the same side of the Atlantic from which Michael left.
The legacy that began more than a century before was cemented four generations later with Conlin’s Olympic performance.
It is a legacy McCabe initially resisted, but later succumbed to. Thankfully.
Rowing is in McCabe’s blood.
He was meant to be a rower. There is no denying it. There is no escaping it.
At 6 feet 8 inches tall and 235 pounds, McCabe is a behemoth. There was never any doubt that he would be oversized, the question was simply by how much.
“Every one is big in my family,” said McCabe. “But I am the biggest. I weighed 12 pounds when I was born.”
A foot taller then everyone around him, McCabe was given a head start in the world of sports that he wisely capitalized on.
He first picked up an oar at summer camp. One had to be 11 years old to row, but at 9, McCabe dwarfed the older kids. There was no point in refusing him entry into the group.
Over the years, other sports beckoned him onto the field, but it was the boathouse where he surrendered.
“I remember telling my mom I wanted to make my mark in another sport, not in rowing,” said McCabe. “I was going to be different.”
A decision his mom supported, even encouraged. McCabe had to decide for himself what he wanted to do, not what he thought was expected of him.
It is an approach that Conlin’s mom still administers to all of her children, regardless of the path they choose.
“I don’t know how my mom does it,” McCabe explained while choking up, “she has so much love and support to give.”
The Brockville mother has an unconditional endorsement system the larger-than-life McCabe is grateful for, and to which he credits his rowing successes.
He is also appreciative for the rowing paths that were paved for him by members of his family, regardless to which generation they belonged.
“My great-grandfather was a rower, my grandfather was a rower, my mother was a rower,” explained McCabe.
“Did I really have any other choice?”
But rowing was not such a bad one. And hard to resist, especially when coaches were literally on his doorstep pleading for him to join their teams. It was a script that was repeated more than once over the years.
The first time was in the form of a phone call from the late Doug Marshall, one of the pillars of the Brockville rowing community. That call changed his life.
In rowing, size means leverage and power, two things that make every heavyweight coach salivate.
“He knew how big I was,” explained McCabe, who despite his size, presents like a big teddy bear, “ and he wanted me to row. It’s that simple.”
He also knew what kind of stock the McCabe’s were made off, having coached Conlin’s mom when she rowed in her heyday.
Conlin has been pursued ever since.
When the University of Washington’s head coach made the trip to Brockville to talk to McCabe, Conlin introduced him to his stomping ground, the Brockville boathouse.
McCabe, trying to impress the American, showed off the club’s equipment, relics from the 1970’s and 80’s, which were still in use.
“These were the shells that my aunts and uncles used to row in,” recounted a nostalgic McCabe of the conversation he remembered having with the Washington coach, “and they were the boats that I trained in when I first started to row. Isn’t that amazing?”
It was the opening that the wily university coach had been looking for. When he asked McCabe if he knew where all of these boats were made, Conlin indicated that he didn’t.
“Seattle,” the coach said, “at your new school.”
That was all the sentimental McCabe needed to hear. The deal was sealed.
Shortly after, Conlin toured the University of Washington campus. Despite being far from his roots, he knew it was going to be a place where he was going to be able to thrive.
But McCabe has a knack for blossoming wherever he plants himself.
This is in part due to the valuable message relayed to him during his early days in Brockville.
“The most important thing to remember is where you come from, regardless of where you go or the path that you take,” paraphrased Conlin, of the pep talk he and his teammates received from Doug Marshall.
These were the last words spoken to Conlin by the revered Brockville coach before he passed.
And they resonated with him.
They were words that McCabe relied upon when he found himself on the other side of the continent at a large American university.
They were words that, especially after a bad day on the water, reminded Conlin that he could always count on his families support.
They were words that McCabe remembered when at 21, he found himself on an Olympic podium back in the lands of his forefathers.
And they are words that make him reflect on his family’s legacy today.
“I want to win for more than just myself,” said an emotional McCabe, “this is for them, all of them.”
But is that not too much pressure for an athlete to bear, an unnecessary burden to carry?
“No.” McCabe says flatly.
“It keeps me committed. It prevents me from backing away when things get hard. You have to commit to something in life, because someone else has already committed for you.”
Like the commitment his great grandfather made to search for a more prosperous life in the new world.
Like the commitment his grandfather made at 18 years of age to fight for freedom in World War II when he joined the Canadian navy.
Like the commitment his mother made to give unconditional love and support towards her children, both in the good times and especially in the bad times, year after year.
Like the commitment that will allow McCabe to move forward as he pursues, yet again, Olympic glory in 2016 in Rio.
Gaining strength from the past, but looking towards the future, one stroke at a time.
Somewhere, Michael O’Shaughnessy is smiling.
Conlin McCabe finished 5th in the men’s four at the World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, last summer.
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