Fear of failure is a great motivator. Hate also works nicely in a pinch. You don’t see these emotions in Caroline Brunet’s face. They manifest themselves in how the world’s best female kayaker trains, how she thinks and how she speaks. With refreshing un-Canadian candor she tells you, “I hate losing more than I love to win.” It’s been her mantra, first in French, then in English, since age 13, when she won her first race at home in Lac Beauport, Que.
Many Canadian athletes say they’re thrilled just to go to the Olympics and will happily settle for a “personal best.” Brunet doesn’t toe that party line. “The Canadian way is to think, ‘O.K., go out, do your best and have fun,’” she says. “For me it’s not enough to go to the Olympics to participate. I’m never satisfied.”
World-championship medals aren’t enough. For the past three years, Brunet has owned the kayak world, winning eight of the nine gold medals available in K-1, or solo, events. But it’s like having a closet full of shoes and nothing to wear. “They’re nice, but they’re not enough,” she says. “I could win 20 times in a row at the worlds, but I need to know I have succeeded in this sport. To really do that, you need to win at the Olympics.”
Sydney will be her fourth Olympics, but the first in which she is a favorite. At Seoul in 1988, as a shy 19-year-old, she was 13th. “When I think back, I was soooo naive,” she laughs. In 1992 she improved and finished seventh.
She concluded that doing things the Canadian way was just not good enough. She revamped her training program, settled in Denmark and hired former world canoe champion Christian Frederiksen as her coach. (He also was for a time her lover.) Brunet captured silver at Atlanta in 1996, losing by 0.2 sec. She thought silver was O.K. until the replay showed how close she was to gold. “That made it worse,” she says, “Even now it bothers me.”
Losing in Sydney, no doubt, would bother her more. So she trains 30 hours a week: 20 on water, 10 in the gym. “After I retire,” she vows, “I’ll never go into another gym again.” The grind of a sport that has no off-season has left Brunet, 31, with nagging shoulder and hip pain in her sturdy 152-lb., 5-ft. 8-in. frame, and scar tissue from muscle rubbing on bone in her behind. “My bum is so sore,” she says, voicing the kayaker’s lament.
Brunet is hedging her bets in a way, opting to add the K-2, or two-person kayaking, challenge by teaming with Karen Furneaux, 23, an Olympic rookie. “It’s the first time for me sharing anything,” says Brunet of the partnership. “I’ve never before had to share victory. It’s nice to share good moments. This is something I’ve found out very late.”