Anne and Terry Light remember well the excited phone call they received from rowing coaches at Stelly’s secondary following open tryouts for the school’s rowing team.
Their son Kevin, a Grade 12 student at the time, had never sat on a rowing machine until that day, when he beat all existing team members on his first try.
“They called us from the car, beyond excited,” said Terry. “They latched on to this athlete.”
Now a gold medalist for Canada in men’s eight rowing, Kevin built his rowing career at Stelly’s and later the University of Victoria, and the Lights were drawn into a close-knit network of rowing families.
After world championship wins in 2002 and 2003, Anne and Terry traveled with other family members of the men’s eight team to watch what they were confident would be a gold medal heat in Athens. The team finished fifth.
“As newbie Olympic parents, going on past record, we were thinking ‘Of course they’ll just get in the boat and win like they always win and wouldn’t that be terrific?’” Anne said. “All of a sudden they’re not winning and all of a sudden they’re falling behind and what’s going on?
“You bury your head in your hands and think this can’t be happening, but it was in fact happening.”
The pressure created by media coverage and hype surrounding the Olympics were too much for the athletes and those close to them. The days that followed were dark.
“I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but it was like a death,” Anne said. “Other than the athletes and the families of athletes, (people) didn’t understand the extreme low of that.”
Balancing the extreme lows, are the extreme highs that come along with winning on the world stage.
In 2008, Kevin was on the team that came out ahead of the pack in Beijing and won gold in the men’s eight. In the stands once more with the Olympic families, decked out in red and white, Anne attempted to watch, at times turning away. Terry doesn’t recognize himself in a video from the event.
“My neighbour back home doesn’t get it, my best friend doesn’t get it, but that other parent who’s right beside you – they get it,” Anne said.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off of my son and his crew mates. I’m getting all choked up just thinking about it. … You see the Canadian flag going up and you think, there’s your…”
Anne pauses, overcome with emotion.
“Terry, you carry on,” she says with a nervous laugh.
“I’m not sure I can do any better,” he says over the audible lump in his throat. “It’s emotion that you can’t describe and maybe it’s even embarrassing, because you’re just watching, but there’s that pride in the accomplishment.”
The Sidney couple – Terry, a semi-retired pharmacist and Anne, a former special education teacher at Claremont secondary – have another Olympian in their life. Their daughter Heather is a swimmer who has won medals at the Special Olympics B.C. The Lights are humble about what their children have been able to achieve.
“I’m more proud of Kevin as a person than I am of his athletic accomplishments,” Terry said. “An Olympic gold is just a part of your life and there are many things to be proud of your child for.”
Shifting from rowing to cycling, May 27 was a proud day for all of Victoria as 31-year-old Ryder Hesjedal beat the competition by just 16 seconds and became the first Canadian in history to win the Giro d’Italia.
Leonard Hesjedal, Ryder’s father, the man who drove the cyclist to his first downhill mountain biking competition in Shawnigan Lake at just 14-years-old, surprised Ryder at the finish line.
Like the Lights in Beijing, Leonard – along with Ryder’s friends Seamus McGrath and Cody Graham – had the maple leaf flag and hockey stick in hand. They were really “Canucking it,” Leonard said.
“There was a moment when he first saw me that he said: ‘I knew you’d be here, dad. I knew you’d come,” Leonard said. “For me to hear those words – there were so many other times that I wondered if he wished I were there in person.”
Leonard and his wife Paige Porter, who both work for the Capital Regional District, have also felt those low moments. It was just more than a month after the Giro win when they were struck with the news of Ryder’s Tour de France crash and subsequent exit from the race on July 7.
“It was pretty heartbreaking, but we understood,” Leonard said. “When they hit the ground it can be pretty earth-shaking, body-shaking, scarring over scars. … If he gets up … everything’s good.”
Leonard and Paige were there as Ryder rode a mountain bike in the Games in Athens. They’ll take in the road race and time trials in London from their Metchosin home.
Though Paige and Leonard won’t be roadside physically, their thoughts will be in London and the event will be celebrated on Ryder’s return home.
“I always thanked his coaches and they always said it was the parents who were the most important,” Leonard said.
“The coach can just coach. The parents need to give them the support. The parents need to be there to pat them on the back and watch them do what they’re doing.”
The Lights will also follow the 2012 Olympics from the Island as Kevin, now 33, makes the trip to London as a spare on the men’s eight.
Despite the family’s intense connection to the Olympics, it’s one that could go quietly unnoticed by those outside their circle.
“We don’t ever open up the conversation with ‘This is our son, the gold medalist,’” Anne said. “We’re not the kind that will boast about it because everyone has sons and daughters who they’re proud of in different ways.”