From paddling to Parliament: Olympian Adam van Koeverden on being a rookie MP

From paddling to Parliament: Olympian Adam van Koeverden on being a rookie MP

Adam van Koeverden figures he paddled a kayak more than 125,000 kilometres over the years, a gruelling cadence of left-right, left-right that earned him four Olympic medals, the honour of twice carrying Canada’s flag at the Games and an award as this country’s athlete of the year.

Now, as a rookie Liberal member of Parliament, he hopes to navigate the choppy waters of government by sticking to the middle. He’s arriving on the Ottawa scene full of hope and idealism about what he can give back to his community and how the country can heal after an election that seemingly fractured it politically.

“Just because we have a different party representing the majority of the western part of the country and a different party (representing) the majority of the eastern part of the country, I don’t think that necessarily means we’re divided,” says van Koeverden, who in October pulled off a convincing victory over Conservative deputy party leader and incumbent Lisa Raitt in the riding of Milton.

“I think that means we have an opportunity to work together to find some common ground … and to champion each other’s good ideas. I’ve been saying since the beginning, there are good ideas on the left, there are good ideas on the right. I chose the Liberal party because I’m in the middle. And I feel like we’re in the best position to work together and I genuinely want to.”

Naive? Perhaps. He’s been told that. But …

“If you think you’re going to go off to the Olympics and win medals, then you’d better be capable of dreaming,” says the 37-year-old. “And I certainly am.

“I’m not going to be overly naive. I am going to be optimistic though. I’ll be idealistic until somebody proves me wrong.”

Van Koeverden recently sat down with the Star to discuss why he chose to represent Canada in a new way and what his aspirations are as an MP. And although he clearly doesn’t want to be regarded as an athlete-turned-politician novelty, he understands that, for a while at least, his Olympic background will remain a public fascination.

It just didn’t help him on the campaign trail as much as might be assumed, he says.

“I knocked on just as many doors where the people had no idea who I was,” he says. “I wasn’t knocking on doors to talk about the Olympics.”

“I was knocking on doors to talk about my endeavour to represent those folks in Ottawa. I can’t remove something from my resumé but I wasn’t knocking on doors saying, ‘Hey, it’s your friendly neighbourhood Olympian here.’ As much as the Conservatives wanted you to believe I was just (campaigning) on my Olympic medals.”

But it’s impossible to ignore van Koeverden’s background. It made him, and his omnipresent denim jacket, a star candidate in Milton.

Liberal party candidate Adam van Koeverden campaigning at the Milton GO Transit station before the October election.

There’s the oft-told story of how his mother, in 1995, signed him up at Oakville’s Burloak Canoe Club after she saw a newspaper ad recruiting new athletes with the tagline: “Future Champions Wanted.” He was 13 at the time.

The youngster blossomed as a paddler through his teens and became Canada’s only double medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He won gold in the K1 500m event, one day after capturing a bronze in the K1 1000m. He was, later that year, voted the winner of the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top athlete.

Van Koeverden would go on to win silver medals at both the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2012 Games at London. There were also eight world championship medals, including two golds, along the way. At his fourth and last Olympics, at Rio in 2016, van Koeverden didn’t qualify for the final of the 1,000-metre event. His time in the B-final would have earned him a silver medal if he had.

Now he’s in politics, something that is not all that unusual for former athletes. Van Koeverden wasn’t even the only former Olympian breaking into the Liberals’ parliamentary ranks in the October election. Cyclist Lyne Bessette carried the Quebec riding of Brome-Missisquoi.

Olympic synchro swimming champion Sylvie Fréchette and hockey player Angelo Esposito were notable athletes who ran unsuccessfully. In the past, Ken Dryden, Red Kelly and Syl Apps were among hockey stars who sat in Parliament. An exhaustive list of sports figures who were also successful in politics would be long.

Peter Fonseca, the Olympic marathoner who was first an Ontario MPP before winning the federal seat of Mississauga East—Cooksville in 2015 and again in 2019, says goal-setting combined with the planning and drive to achieve those goals are attributes that help a former athlete through the grind of a campaign.

Then, once in the legislature, those athletes can draw on their experiences through sport — often involving global travel and interacting with a wide variety of people — to shape the values they bring to government, Fonseca says.

Adam van Koeverden celebrates another victory, at the finish line of MOL ICF Flatwater Racing World Cup in 2008.

“But I don’t think you could just be an athlete and jump into politics without having a reason, a raison d’être,” says Fonseca. “You know, ‘Why and I doing this? What am I going to be able to do in terms of the change I want to bring to my neighbourhood, to my city, to my province and to my country? I’m sure Adam had that purpose with him every day.”

Fonseca says “it would never work” to run without that conviction on name recognition alone.

Instead, van Koeverden points to what he’s been doing since he won gold 15 years ago: various projects that were, in retrospect, a precursor to politics.

Off the water, he was an ambassador for Right to Play which assists disadvantaged youth through sport. He volunteered with the David Suzuki Foundation, Parkinson’s Canada, Special Olympics and WaterAID. He also served as chair and vice-chair of the Canadian Olympic Athletes’ Commission as well as sitting as a member of the federal government’s working group on Gender Inclusion and Gender Based Violence in Sport.

Van Koeverden frequently gave speeches at schools, did broadcasting for CBC and managed a wellness program at Deloitte. At one point he had a business importing canoes and kayaks from Portugal.

He says he is often asked about how being an athlete translates into being a politician but not how his previous experience as a businessman, advocate or public speaker will be an asset on the Hill.

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The neophyte MP says sport at the Olympic level is “largely a selfish endeavour” even though you’re racing for the country in Canada’s colours. While politics is something he saw as a way to fulfil “the desire to part of something bigger than myself.”

Liberal candidate Adam van Koeverden with his mom at a party in Milton.

In Ottawa, van Koeverden says he feels an obligation to ensure the voices of his constituents in Milton are being heard.

“We’ve got some local issues, like there’s a quarry project that nobody wants to see go forward,” he says. “There’s a (proposed) CN intermodal (truck-rail hub) that most Miltonians, and everyone I’ve spoken to, think is in the wrong location for Milton and, frankly, CN.”

He also said he wants to continue helping Wilfrid Laurier University, in partnership with Conestoga College, in bringing a satellite campus to the Town of Milton despite the provincial government killing funding for the project.

“I’m showing my support in any way that I can because I believe Milton needs and deserves an institution of higher learning,” he says.

And, not surprisingly, the benefits of youth participation in sports are also on the checklist.

“I don’t think we should have any barriers, whether they’re geographical, financial or cultural, that would keep kids from having access to great sport and play opportunities.”

That agenda helped van Koeverden get elected in Milton as the Liberals nearly swept the GTA. The former paddler received 51.7 per cent of the vote, Raitt took 36.1 per cent. In 2015, when the Liberals won a majority, Raitt won the riding by five percentage points over Liberal Azim Rizvee.

Van Koeverden was subsequently appointed as parliamentary secretary to both the minister of diversity and inclusion and youth and to the minister of Canadian Heritage (Sport).

About that he tweeted: “This is my dream job. I love CANADA so much & I’m excited to work on such meaningful issues.”

As for his own participation in sport, Van Koeverden says he hardly paddled at all during a demanding run-up to the election and only twice, briefly, did he get out on the water at his Algonquin hideaway. At his peak, he could knock off 60 chin-ups in a row but now, he says, he tops off at about a dozen. In a typical busy fall week, he’d only been in the gym once and managed only one run.

But after a day of canvassing — a pursuit he found could be, like paddling, “lonely, cold and repetitive” — he was “mentally and intellectually exhausted. You find your brain really doesn’t want to work any more after having, like, 60 or 70 conversations at the door.”

The Liberal party kept internal statistics listing all the candidates across the country’s 338 ridings and tabulating how many doors each knocked on and how many constituents each spoke to.

“Amongst Liberals, Adam was solidly at the top, week after week after week,” says his colleague Fonseca. “Everyone was working very, very hard but Adam was still able to beat everybody and I know that was a driver for him. He was out there from morning to night. He’d hit his own personal targets and always tried, I’m sure, to beat those.”

Parliament will next sit on Jan. 28, and when he goes back to Ottawa, van Koeverden said he will take his skis and plan on joining a cross-country ski club there. He’ll also eventually bring a kayak to the capital and there’s a good chance he’ll be spotted paddling on the Rideau River next summer.

“I’m not going to do it 10 times a week,” he says. “So I’m not going to be eligible for the 2020 Olympics.”

The golden moment in Athens for van Koeverden.

The medals he has collected over the years, the ones tucked away in a drawer at his Milton home, likely won’t make their way to his office in the capital to be displayed. He really has moved on.

“I’ve derived all my happiness from winning and the vast majority of my sadness from losing,” he says looking back at this paddling career.

“So I needed to find something new and I’ve found it (in politics). It’s filled the void in the amount of time I’ve given to it. Now it’s up to me and my team to build something that’s gratifying; not just for me but for my community.”

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