Canada has a distinct national flag.
The current one was adopted in 1965 by the government of Lester B. Pearson. Thirty-one years later, National Flag of Canada Day was declared on February 15th 1996. It has been observed on that day every year since.
At fifty years old this year, the Canadian flag is one of the most recognized ensigns in the world. To countless individuals, it symbolizes tolerance, hope, and opportunity.
To rowers, it symbolizes pride.
Pride in a nation that offers the opportunity to practice the sport that they love. Pride in a nation that provides them with the support they need to chase their Olympic dreams.
And although the official National Flag of Canada Day may fall on February 15th, to rowers, the maple leaf plays an important role on more than just this one day.
In the sport of rowing, a nation’s flag can usually be found on the blade of the oars. This is indeed the case for Canada. However unlike other countries, it has become a tradition amongst the Canadian team that the rowing oars be adorned with the iconic maple leaf at only the most important regattas.
Because of this, there is a tremendous amount of honor, for rookies and veterans alike, when the Canadian flag decorates the blade of a rowers oar. There are only two regattas where this is allowed: at the season ending World Championship Regatta and at the Olympic Games Regatta.
“I feel pride when I receive my maple leafs and put them on my oars,” says Emily Cameron, who was a member of the women’s quad at last year’s World Championships in Amsterdam.
“We only race the World Championships and Olympics with the leafs, and if I’m putting them on my oars, it means that I have made it to the toughest competition of the year, and that is really exciting.”
Lindsay Jennerich, the lightweight veteran of the team, supports Cameron’s view.
“Putting the maple leaf onto my oars represents the fact that I am about to race the ultimate race,” Jennerich says. “I’m racing the race that I have trained all year for or maybe even the last four years! It’s a seal of preparedness and with that comes the pressure that it’s now or never.”
At no other regatta will the maple leaf be found on a national team member’s oar. Not even during the prestigious World Cup circuit races.
“It’s a very special tradition to only race with the maple leafs on the oars at these two regattas,” Jennerich reiterates.
“It’s a quintessential symbol [the maple leaf] of our nation and I love that we are committed to using it only at the moment that we are at our absolute best.”
As part of the tradition, there is a discreet ceremony at the hotel before the regatta begins whereby the athletes are presented with the maple leaf decals. It is a moment that is rife with symbolism. The presentation officially acknowledges that the athlete has earned the right to be there and that they are at the top of their game.
“The maple leaf serves as a reminder of the hard work and discipline that was required to get to this stage,” says Eric Woelfl, who competed in the lightweight four at last years World Championships.
“There is so much meaning behind the maple leaf, I try to live up to that when I am racing with them on my oars.”
And regardless of the outcome of the competition, the maple leaf is always stripped from the blade at the close of the regatta. Along with the maple leaf-less oars, the athletes return to Canada to start (almost immediately) preparing for next year’s opportunities, next year’s chance to be presented with the maple leaf once again. A winter’s worth of hard work lies ahead, and the prospect of earning the right to race with the flag on their blades helps to keep the rowers motivated and focused.
“Yes, year after year, putting the maple leaf on the oar is a reflection of all the hard work,” adds Cameron, “but taking them off is also a reminder of the difficult work that needs to be done if we want to be at our best.”
Something the athletes will be reminded of this February 15th as they take a moment to think about the Canadian flag and everything it represents. And a reminder that the challenges which lie ahead are worth it, especially if it translates into a maple leaf ceremony in a hotel somewhere in Rio de Janeiro, on the eve of the next Olympic Regatta.
Click here to learn more about the athletes fighting for a chance to wear the maple leaf in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Written by: Douglas Vandor
Rowing Canada Aviron – 250.686.2282