Listen to this article
When sailor Lawrence Lemieux represented Canada in Seoul, he had high hopes of returning with a medal. But he did not expect to come home with the Pierre de Coubertin medal for athletes who have shown an exceptional spirit of sportsmanship – or as the hero of a dramatic rescue at sea.
Lemieux was sailing for Canada in a one-man Finn dinghy, which was sharing its course with two other races: the men’s and women’s 470 two-person boats. The conditions were unexpectedly challenging, with strong winds and currents causing exceptionally steep waves. Lemieux was winning his race until he dropped to second place because he missed a marker – the fluorescent buoys that signalled the course were eight feet high but the waves were so large that he simply didn’t see it. “I’d raced in that much wind, but the steepness of the waves, that’s a whole different thing,” he recalls.
A number of competitors were running into difficulty in the heavy seas, including the Singaporean two-man team. Lemieux spotted their upturned dinghy – one man had made it onto the hull but the other was drifting helplessly. “The distance between him and his boat was quite a way and the boat was drifting faster than he could swim. And if I couldn’t see those big orange markers, who was going to see a little head bobbing in the water? He’d have been lost at sea. I had to make a decision and once I realised the dynamics of the problem there was no question.”
Lemieux abandoned his course. “I sailed by [the crewman] and used the momentum to flip him up into the boat.” In a single-handed boat there’s no room for a second person so Lemieux headed back towards the upturned Singaporean boat. “The other crew member had cut his hand, he was bleeding all over, and they had lost their rudder, so they couldn’t right the boat.” Lemieux’s hopes of a medal vanished as soon as he changed course to head to the rescue; he eventually finished in 22nd place. Did he ever, even for a moment, regret that decision? “No. I wasn’t thinking about that when I was trying to help these guys.” (One suspects it’s not the first time he has been asked this question.) He still bumps into Joseph Chan and Shaw Her Siew at international sailing events.
The Canadian’s boating apprenticeship began courtesy of his five older brothers, enthusiastic sailors on Wabamun Lake near the family home in Alberta. Sailing ‘just clicked’, as he explains over coffee in Weymouth, where he is working with Guatemalan hopeful Juan Ignacio Maegli ahead of the 2012 Games. Today the laid-back Canadian with a ready smile, now 56, is an internationally sought-after coach. The motto on his baseball cap reads: Life is Good.
Lemieux began racing solo in the 1970s and found that it relies on individual tactics and strategy. “It’s you and the boat,” he says, “You’re in control of your destiny, you can develop a technique that works for you. It’s all you.” At his very first world championship, he finished eighth. “I didn’t expect that – these were the best sailors in the world.” At the time, the only single-handed Olympic-class boat was the Finn, which Lemieux duly took up. “We were a new breed back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There was a group of us, I was the only guy from Canada, with maybe four and five Americans. We sailed full time and that’s all we did. We lived in vans, we ate in campgrounds, we had no money – but we excelled. We took the sport to a new level.”
The Pierre de Coubertin medal is an enormous honour. Since it was launched in 1964, only 11 have been awarded. Would Lemieux rather, however, be sitting in the Dorset sunshine talking about the silver or gold he could have won? Sailing, says Lemieux a little ruefully, is not the most popular sport in terms of media coverage. “You spend your life working really hard internationally and you get very few accolades. So that’s the ironic thing; 25 years after this rescue, we’re still talking about it.”