In 2008, Ben Rutledge won an Olympic gold medal as a member of the Canadian men’s eight-plus rowing squad.
Shortly after that, he retired and took to coaching the sport at the University of British Columbia.
Now seven years after his Olympic victory, the 35-year-old Cranbrook native is in pursuit of further Olympic greatness, this time as a junior coach with the Russian women’s eight-plus rowing team.
What makes the Russian rowing revolution so significant is that after finishing second last at the 2014 European Rowing Championships, the team turned around to claim gold at the 2015 European Rowing Championships in Poznan, Poland, a year after Rutledge’s arrival.
With the 2016 Summer Olympic Games right around the corner, the Russian crew is intent on making its way to the podium in Rio De Janiero a year from now.
“The daily focus and effort during the winter months is where you make your biggest gains,” Rutledge wrote via email, giving credit to the team’s dedication to training. “Last summer at the world championships, they were able to improve very quickly in a short period of time in our environment and that has helped them stay focused and motivated through the long winter.”
As a junior coach, Rutledge isn’t the only man responsible for helping with the rejuvenation of the Russian women’s rowing program. In fact, he characterizes himself as merely a cog in the much bigger machine that is the Russian Rowing Federation.
While still competing in Canada, Rutledge was guided by Mike Spracklen — a veteran coach of nine Summer Olympic Games. According to Rutledge, it is the former International Rowing Federation coach of the year who is largely responsible for Russia’s sharpened edge on the global rowing scene.
Spracklen took over the Russian men’s rowing program in the fall of 2014, helping the eight-plus team to a silver-medal performance at the 2014 European Rowing Championships.
Having seen the turnaround of the men’s team, the Russian Rowing Federation set Spracklen to work his magic with the women’s eight-plus squad. But Spracklen wasn’t about to do it on his own. He insisted on having someone who understood his system.
“I had been staying in contact with Mike and had told him if he ever needed any help I’d be keen to be involved,” Rutledge wrote.
“I had some friends looking out for me and had run into the leadership of the Russian federation, letting them know I could be available. So they contacted me and I went over last summer on a trial basis.”
According to Rutledge, the program was well organized and well funded with motivated athletes upon his arrival, but unfortunately, they had yet to achieve much success internationally.
“[Spracklen] had spent the past six months developing a work ethic with the men’s team,” Rutledge wrote. “When I came in to coach the women, they had good role models to follow.”
It didn’t take long for Spracklen’s system and Rutledge’s guidance to have an impact on the women’s eight-plus team, which beat out the likes of the Netherlands, Romania, Germany, Great Britain and Belarus to claim gold at the 2015 European Rowing Championships on May 31.
With European gold on the mantle, the Russian women’s eight-plus team, along with Rutledge, now have their sights set on the podium at the 2015 World Rowing Championships, set for Aug. 30 to Sept. 6 in Aiguebelette, France.
Ultimately, the team is aiming to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio De Janiero, Brazil. A top-five finish at the 2015 World Championships will achieve that.
“We need to be in the medal hunt this year [at the World Championships] if we expect to have a shot at one next year [in Brazil],” Rutledge wrote.
“Over time, I have come to learn that I get the most satisfaction out of helping people and seeing them succeed.”
Having already claimed his own Olympic gold medal in competition, the Canadian rowing great from the little mountain town of Cranbrook is intent on guiding his hard-working Russian team to their own Olympic glory in 2016.
The Russian women’s eight team features Julia Kalinovskaya (bow), Yulia Inozemtseva (seat two), Elena Lebedeva (seat three), Anastasia Tkhanova (seat four), Anastasia Karabelshchikova (seat five), Aleksandra Fedorova (seat six), Julia Popova (seat seven), Alevtina Savkina (stroke) and Ksenia Volkova (coxswain).
The team trains in Valday, Russia, located approximately 400 kilometres northwest of Moscow on Lake Valdayskoye.
Rutledge attended Mount Baker Secondary School while growing up in Cranbrook, before moving on to earn a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of British Columbia.