Tokyo 2020 Chef de Mission Marnie McBean on Navigating the Roller Coaster of Olympic Ambition
Image credit: Andrew Lahodynskyj, Team Canada
Being an Olympic athlete, competing among the world’s best, is a rare and honoured opportunity. It takes years of dedication and perseverance as well as the convergence of many factors, many of which are beyond our control. Even rarer is the chance to be at the helm of it all, mentoring athletes who are poised for a shot at Olympic glory. That is where Marnie McBean, appointed Team Canada’s Chef de Mission for Tokyo 2020, comes in. Her track record stands for itself: four-time Olympic medalist and multiple world champion rower, mentor of Olympic athletes for years, and Officer of the Order of Canada. This month, Marnie shares how this new role was a natural next step for her, and why this winter season is pivotal for summer success.
Parvati Magazine: Congratulations on the honour of being Canada’s Chef de Mission for Tokyo 2020. How has your day-to-day life shifted since you were appointed? How have you been preparing for this role over the last nine Olympic Games?
Marnie McBean: I feel that I’ve been preparing for this role since 2005. I volunteered for the Canadian Olympic Mission team for the Turin 2006 Olympics. That year my title was Athlete Liaison Officer and I was to manage one of the athlete lounges in a mountain village. It was an amazing experience. I really came face to face with all of the different sport/athlete cultures, and we discovered how many emotions were shared as part of committing to such a massive goal. The roller coaster that ambition takes us on is a universal thing. By the end of those games my title [changed] to Peer Performance Mentor, and by 2010 I was a Specialist in Olympic Athlete Preparation and Mentoring.
For this role, Chef de Mission, I continue to mentor athletes in person and online. I’m an ambassador and advocate for the team.
Parvati Magazine: To you, the closing ceremony at the Olympic Games is more important than the opening. What does the finale represent to you?
Marnie McBean: We don’t train to wait. We train to do. We don’t dream of starting, we dream of being done. The work is not over until it’s done, so while the opening ceremony is always a beautiful presentation, every single athlete is champing at the bit to start, to do what they have been working so hard for. As a Mission team member, I want to remember that [even] the very last day of the Olympics is somebody’s first (and only) day of competition. I have to treat every day—until the Olympic flame is out at the Closing Ceremony—as the most important day.
Parvati Magazine: Canada’s Olympic team for 2020 is one of the largest in decades. Why do you think that is?
Marnie McBean: Canadian athletes and teams in the last few years have been killing it! What particularly stands out is some of our larger team sports: it looks like we will have more teams qualify than we have in a long time. I think this is a result of a concerted effort in the last five to eight years by the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own the Podium to focus on some of the unique requirements to move a team sport from good to great.
Parvati Magazine: It’s said that “summer medals are earned with winter work.” What work would you say is the most important this winter for the athletes hoping to go to Tokyo next summer?
Marnie McBean: Through the winter, athletes and coaches have to be looking at how to get better. This requires a voracious appetite for critical feedback and a dedication to volume of work, intensity and focus. You can’t cram for the Olympics; this has to be done months and years in advance.
Parvati Magazine: Your own path to the Olympic podium was through rowing. What do you love about this sport and what do you think most people don’t realize about it?
Marnie McBean: Rowing is way harder than it looks. We are having to manage the boat and its momentum on many planes: front to back, side to side and even up and down. I think people get that it’s physically hard because we tend to collapse at the finish. You’ll never see a rower do a victory lap! Technically, the attention to detail while absorbing the lactic acid load and outrageous cardio demands are so often overlooked.
Marnie McBean is a former Olympic and world champion rower, one of just two Canadians to be a triple gold medallist at the Summer Games. After retiring from competition, she became a sought-after mentor with Canada’s Olympic teams. She is the Chef de Mission for Team Canada at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.