A dream team of remarkable teachers helped shape Marnie McBean into the successful athlete and coach she is today.
BY Richard Ouzounian
PHOTOS: Andrew Lahodynskyj/Team Canada (above); courtesy of marnie mcbean (below)
It's no surprise that educating Marnie McBean was a team sport. McBean is one of the most accomplished athletes in Canadian history and one of only two Canadians to win three gold medals at the Summer Olympics. Last summer, she was named Chef de Mission for Team Canada at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, an appropriate next step in the career of a seemingly born leader, coach and motivator, whose well-received and insightful book, The Power of More, sums up her views on self-motivation.
When you talk to the disarmingly candid McBean, she'll admit that many of the qualities that helped her reach such lofty goals in life were instilled in her early on — years, in fact, before she ever settled on rowing as her major pursuit.
The time she spent at Park Lawn Junior Middle School in Etobicoke, Ont., from which she graduated in 1982, contributed to how McBean says she was "shaped, moulded and shown how to become the person I am today."
McBean says it wasn't just one particular teacher at Park Lawn who guided her, but a veritable dream team of educators who helped her find her way. "If you asked me who changed my life, I'd struggle to name just one person," admits McBean. "I don't think we do heroes that way in Canada. We take bits and pieces of all the people who helped us along the way."
In some ways, McBean was a late starter. Although she was an avid athlete from her earliest years, the first time she was drawn to the Olympics was at the age of 16 when she watched the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games and felt what she calls "a strong pull" toward the camaraderie and joy of the athletes.
Rowing became her sport of choice after she watched the Rob Lowe film Oxford Blues, later that year, with its dramatic, exciting depiction of the world of competitive rowing.
Although all this happened shortly after her time in middle school, it was those formative years that "made me ready for everything that would happen to me," she recalls.
When asked what she was like going into middle school, McBean laughs. "I was a strong character coming in. Whether it was misplaced or not, I always had a certain confidence." She adds, "I was not without my own insecurities and issues. I'm not perfect! I wasn't beyond getting in a little trouble, on occasion."
One of the teachers who made a big impact during those years was her Grade 6 health teacher, Barb Abbott. "I remember having normal conversations with her," McBean recalls. "I was maybe a mature kid, an old soul, and she sensed that." She hastens to add, "I always knew my teachers were my teachers. I never felt they were my friends or my buddies, but they talked to me like a person and that made all the difference."
John Armstrong made a strong impression on McBean during those early years, as well. "He was a great teacher. I had him for math, history and homeroom. I remember he was firm — he never allowed any slacking off."
But it was in the world of extracurriculars where Armstrong made the strongest impression. "He was the chess coach and he was really brilliant at it. He put us into leagues and had us playing competitively. The competition really appealed to me. I was ranked in the top 25 of under-16 players nationally," McBean recalls. She says Armstrong taught her how to think strategically — a skill she'd come to rely on down the road while training and racing. "In chess, I knew all these opening moves and where they would lead. I remember him saying ‘This is the Kasparov opening. Learn it.' And I did."
Another teacher who made a substantial impact was Mary Matsui, her music teacher. "She was a petite woman with quite a sense of style. She wore flared pants, big collars, stuff like that," says McBean. "She made music fun, but she didn't do it by trivializing it. Quite the opposite. She put theory to it. She helped us understand how music worked and then made us do research papers. I picked The Police and had to figure out what actually went into the songs that Sting wrote and sang."
McBean reflects on her Park Lawn teachers and their lasting impact. "I liked teachers who taught real stuff, who could create analogies I could respond to," she says. "If someone came up with an analogy I latched onto it. It didn't just help me in that subject, I used it in my life, my rowing. I use them to this day!"
She remembers a math teacher in high school whose emphasis on problem-solving helped her in a biomechanics course in university. "He taught us how to strategize moves ahead, to look back at an equation and understand the principle behind it, not just the answer to the immediate problem," says McBean.
She took that analytical thought process and carried it with her into adult life and into competition, as she recalls in The Power of More:
Before every race, to give us a realistic idea of what to expect, my coach, my rowing partner, and I would use the real data of our skills and speed versus those of the competition to create a race profile prediction.
Back in school, life lessons were just a regular part of everyday classroom interactions. "At the time, I was just doing it. When you're using those tools, you don't really know where they come from. But it's great to stop and ask yourself questions that dig up those memories. In hindsight you can really put those pieces together," says McBean.
She recalls another important area of growth early on in her education. "I was a good reader in Grades 1 and 2, so they asked me to work with ESL students. I became a real helper." Those experiences supporting others in their learning may have planted the seeds, helping her become a successful coach and mentor.
After an injury sidelined her from the 2000 Olympics and ended her active rowing career, she was hired by the Canadian Olympic Committee as a specialist in Olympic athlete preparation and mentoring, working closely with Canadian Olympic teams in a variety of sports.
It's clear McBean's early teachers made quite an impact. In 1992, she returned to visit and speak to the student body and staff. Her message to everyone in the crowd that day? "Try out everything, choose the thing you like the best and work very, very hard at it."
There's another moment from that same year that stands out in McBean's memory, just as clearly. She had just stepped off the plane from the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, her two gold medals draped around her neck, and was joking with a newspaper reporter about where she should keep them because "They're a bit heavy for earrings." Then she looked up in the crowd and saw John Armstrong, the no-nonsense teacher who had taught her how to strategize, greeting her in a moment of homecoming glory. "That's something I will never forget."
In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have embraced the College's Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.