Every four years, we care about sports we don’t normally care about, and even then, our admiration is mostly reserved for those athletes who bite gold medals on podiums, many of them just split-seconds or fractions of points away from irrelevance. It’s safe to assume that Rosie MacLennan wouldn’t have received a congratulatory tweet from Justin Bieber had she finished in second or third or worse on Saturday. Her face—beaming and youthful—might not have been printed yesterday on the front pages of Canadian newspapers had she won bronze. After all, she’s a trampolinist. For most of us, her sport is an oddity, as much of a backyard pastime as an Olympic sport.
But on Saturday, she won gold in women’s trampoline, the first and only gold for Canada at these Olympics thus far. So right now, MacLennan is a very big deal in her country, and with one week left in the Summer Games, she’s the early favorite to carry Canada’s flag at the closing ceremony. It all proves that no matter the sport, victory instils national pride and enthusiasm, however fleeting.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Canada’s trampoline team for this site. Specifically, I wrote about Jason Burnett, the silver medallist at the Beijing Olympics, and Dave Ross, the architect of Canada’s highly successful trampoline program. In that article, MacLennan’s name was only mentioned twice. Part of the reason is that two months ago, when I visited their training facility outside Toronto, MacLennan wasn’t there. She was recovering from a concussion sustained after a crash.
I can only speculate on the severity of her injury. Several media reports described her concussion as “minor.” But her recovery and success is equal parts lucky and impressive when you consider how much trampolinists depend on their spatial awareness, something that could be irreparably altered by a concussion. For instance, each skill has momentary blind spots. And each trampolinist, Burnett told me, will inevitably crash. You either confront those crashes and improve, or your skills regress. There’s also something called “spacing,” the rare times when a trampolinist gets lost in a skill, when his or her mind gets mixed up and can’t locate the body in space. The sport demands an unshakeable trust between the athlete and her body. To succeed, says Burnett, you need minimal fear.
But Ross says he needs athletes “who are a bit crazy” for other reasons. He needs daring competitors who are self-motivated. He needs athletes who can exist in a small program and don’t need constant pampering. Otherwise, his program couldn’t compete with those of other countries, most notably China.
Over the weekend, four Chinese trampolinists competed, and all four won medals. It was something of a foregone conclusion. Burnett has seen the Chinese training facilities and says that everything their athletes need—whether it’s classes or physiotherapy—is “a two-minute walk” away. These are athlete factories. “The thing that’s so shocking about the Chinese is that they’ve got so much depth,” says Ross. “If the top two people retired tomorrow, the team would be 99% as good as it is now.”
Ross doesn’t have that luxury. It won’t be easy replacing Karen Cockburn. She’s the most decorated member of Ross’s team, a three-time Olympic medallist who finished fourth at these Olympics, her last. She was also MacLennan’s idol, and later, her mentor. As for Burnett, his strategy on Friday went as planned, until a point. He reached the final, where his plan was to jump a tougher routine than anyone else. But on the second skill of his routine, he landed outside the trampoline bed. He over-rotated his first skill, which was enough to throw everything off course.
About four weeks before London, I asked Ross if never coaching a gold medallist would be a disappointment. The only disappointment, he said, would be if his athletes were ever unprepared. Over the weekend, everyone was prepared as usual, only MacLennan won gold, the final thing Ross’s athletes had yet to achieve. It’s an individual result, sure, but those are rarely won by a single person. MacLennan, Cockburn, Burnett, and Ross must all be ecstatic.