Supporting Canadian Athletes

Iain Brambell

During a five hour Mind Over Mountain Adventure Race in Sechelt, B.C. in 2006, Iain Brambell realized he missed competitive sport. It had been a year and a half since the lightweight rower had retired from the national team and he was ready to get back in the boat.

“I decided it was easier to row,” he laughs of his mid-race epiphany. “It felt really good to be active again at a vigorous pace.”

Add to that Canada’s hiring of world renowned Danish rowing coach *Bent Jensen and Iain knew coming out of retirement was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

Now a year and a half later, Iain has qualified for Beijing—his third Olympics—and is juggling training, a busy career, and a young family. And while that would be enough to do for most people, it’s not enough for Iain. His commitment to athlete leadership has led him from athlete representation on the AthletesCAN board of directors to his current position as Chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Athlete Council.

Career Beginnings

An accomplished long-distance runner, Iain began rowing in high school after his English teacher (who was also the rowing coach) urged him to give it a try. He continued to row while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in health studies from Brock University and a teaching degree from The University of Western Ontario, which he completed in 1998.

Iain spent many seasons moving back and forth from Victoria, B.C. (his hometown) and London, Ont., where the lightweight men’s training centre was located until 2000. He relocated to Victoria permanently in the fall of 2000 when the training centre was moved there, and married two-time Olympic medalist rower and women’s lightweight National Coach Laryssa Biesenthal in 2002. Their daughter, Avery, was born in 2006.

Sydney, Athens and Beyond

After placing sixth at the 1999 World Championships, Iain and his team (men’s lightweight four) headed into the Sydney Olympics with high hopes. Unfortunately, his boat failed to reach the finals after a fourth place finish in the semis, something Iain had a hard time dealing with.

“The Olympics are the pinnacle and we had high expectations so finishing seventh left almost an immediate feeling of ‘now what’,” Iain says. “It was a real low.”

Iain says the transition to real life after the Olympics was also quite a challenge. Despite having two degrees to fall back on, he admits that having spent so much time preparing for Sydney and than suddenly it being over, “I was a bit lost.”

But Iain rebounded quickly and settled into training for the 2004 Olympics while also doing some supply teaching. He headed into Athens having already made the decision to retire after 10 years on the national rowing team.

“It was my second Games and I was at a point where I was sure it was time to move on outside of sport,” says Iain. “It was time to enter the real world.”

With a fifth place finish, Iain left Athens much more confident than when he left Sydney and just eight months after the Olympics he was named Executive Director of the BC Athlete Voice – an advocacy organization for BC athletes.

Iain settled contently into his career and marriage until that fateful Mind Over Mountain race…

Athlete Representation

Iain served as Rowing Canada’s athlete representative for seven years. He was elected to the position in 1999, attended his first AthletesCAN Forum in 2000 and has been to every Forum since. It took a little persuasion, but after four years, Iain ran for the board of directors of AthletesCAN.

“The combination of both Tom Jones and Michael Smith badgering me to run… I finally did,” Iain says, who sat on the board from 2003-2007. “After all I had learned and utilized from being involved with AthletesCAN, I definitely thought it was time to contribute where, and if, I could.”

As the athlete rep for rowing, Iain also had a seat on the COC’s Athletes’ Council. At the time (2000), the council was made up of representatives from all the Olympic and Pan Am sports. That changed in 2004 when during the Athens Olympics the Canadian team members were asked to elect six summer sport reps, one of whom was Iain. The council was later joined by four winter reps following Torino. Iain was elected vice chair in 2004 and chair in 2006. As both the chair and vice-chair of the Athletes’ Council Iain has also sat on the COC’s Executive Committee since 2004.

Despite being busy in other aspects of life, Iain has never questioned fitting athlete leadership into his schedule. Not only does he feel being involved is personally rewarding, he feels it is important that active athletes are involved to keep the sport system moving forward.

“First and foremost I enjoy being involved in this capacity within sport,” Iain says. “Secondly it was my experience that the great athlete leaders I looked up to were always on their way out (retiring). I saw this as a loss to the sport system and athlete leadership in general as these individuals never seemed to have had the opportunity to fully divulge all their valuable information. I feel it is important to pass on information to ensure that well rounded decisions are made as there is no reason to keep stumbling over the same blocks/barriers if we can help it!”

Beijing and Beyond

Iain and his lightweight fours team finished fourth at the 2007 World Championships qualifying them for the 2008 Olympics. Keeping up with the grueling training schedule along with his work, leadership and family hasn’t been easy, but luckily for Iain, his coach’s commitment to a sport/life balance allows him to juggle all aspects of his life effectively.

“Our daughter has provided a wonderful new dimension to our lives, which luckily coincides with Bent’s philosophy which values life outside the boat as a requirement to being a well-rounded and successful athlete,” says Iain. “With Bent, we come to the boathouse with 110 per cent dedication and commitment, but when we leave the boathouse we focus on our individual lives.”

Iain has his sights set on a personal best and podium finish in Beijing, but no matter what happens on the water, he is committed to his family once the Games are over.

“My plans are definitely to spend as much time with Avery (who will be 1¾) and my wife Laryssa,” says Iain. “I also hope to continue my work with BC Athlete Voice and as far as my athletic career, we’ll just have to wait and see…”

As for Avery, is rowing in her future?

“She can do whatever she wants,” says Iain. “But if she chooses to pursue a sporting career we’re hoping she’ll seriously consider either tennis or golf… something with more of a financial pay-out!”

*Bent Jensen is acknowledged to be the foremost lightweight rowing coach in the world. He is best known for coaching the Danish lightweight men’s four to world and Olympic medals including a gold in Atlanta in 1996, a bronze in Sydney in 2000 and a gold in Athens in 2004. He joined Rowing Canada in 2006 as the lightweight men’s national coach.

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