Just keep paddling

In 2018, Bret Himmelman (right), made the jump to Team Canada, competing at the World Cup in Germany. Photo: Balint Vekassy

Competitive canoer Bret Himmelman opens up about mental health, gruelling training, financial challenges, and making waves in a tough sport

Bret Himmelman’s grandfather dropped him off one summer day in front of the Maskwa Aquatic Club as a scrawny teen, thinking a regimen of paddling would help his grandson build muscles for hockey and lacrosse.

At age 15, it was a late start for the now 23-year-old Paris 2024 Olympic aspirant from Hammonds Plains. Most competitive canoers wade in before they turn 10 or 11, and many are even younger.

“I was the same age as a lot of my teammates, but I had very, very different goals,” recalls Himmelman of his early days at the club on Halifax’s Kearney Lake. “A goal in my first couple of weeks was: let’s get out to this dock without spinning around in circles.”

By the fall, he still hadn’t mastered steering. “Other people were trying to qualify for the nationals,” he says. “I was just learning how to go straight and not hit things … I ended up hitting a tree that was fallen over in the lake.”

He spent hours spilling into in the chilly autumn waters as he struggled to balance the tippy, 30-cm wide racing canoe. “Luckily, I have pretty decent resistance to the cold,” he says. “I think about how cold I am paddling now in November and wonder how I’d fall in and get back in the boat and do it again and not absolutely freeze.”

His perseverance, along with his high fitness level from other sports, paid off. His coach recommended him for that winter’s training camp in Florida, spots usually reserved for Maskwa paddlers with at least two years of high-performance training under their belts.

“That’s the camp where I really fell in love with the sport,” says Himmelman. “I didn’t fall out of the boat on day one, but I think I fell out on day two when I was startled by a manatee or dolphin.”

With four to five hours of training a day at Florida winter camps and back home, he started making strides. By 2017, four years in, he landed on Nova Scotia’s Canoe Kayak Canada Games team. In 2018, he made Canada’s national team.

At the last national team trials, he ranked third in Canada in the men’s single 1,000 metres (an Olympic event known as C1 1000). Two Canadian canoers who made the Tokyo Olympic team (including friendly rival Connor Fitzpatrick, who races out of Senobe Aquatic Club in Dartmouth) weren’t competing in the race. But Himmelman is still in the top four or five in the country in Canoe Kayak Canada’s national ranking.

Himmelman didn’t make the cut for Tokyo during trials in Burnaby, B.C. “I was personally disappointed with my results because I thought I could perform better than what I was showing that weekend,” he says. “But at the nationals at the end of that summer I ended up finishing third in the same C1 event.”

The improvement “was a good reminder that I’m working toward a level that I want to be, which is an Olympic champion,” he says. “That’s why we all do this sport.”

Before the next Olympics, he’s striving to make the Canadian team at the International Canoe Federation’s sprint world championships on Lake Banook in 2022.

Former coach Jon Pike believes Himmelman has what it takes.

“We’re a sport where hard work does pay off,” he says. “Certainly, there’s a degree of talent but if you’re willing to put the work in and be patient with your timelines as far as success, because it never happens quick for anybody, then you’ll be able to achieve a pretty high level. Obviously, Bret’s got some talent too.”

Pike, who’s left coaching to train as a firefighter, says Himmelman is also a nice guy. “He doesn’t really need to coach at the club, but he always did. He wants to take what he’s learned and pass it on to other people,” he adds. “High-performance sport is a pretty selfish endeavour. To some degree, it has to be. Someone willing to give back while they’re still in the midst of it just speaks to the character of the guy.”

Besides encouragement and thousands of hours of technical advice, Himmelman credits Pike for helping him navigate the mental side of the sport.

“I’m an athlete who tends to be really hard on myself,” he says. “Jon knew when I needed a kick in the ass to push me forward or the right time to pull me aside and talk me through it.”

Bret Himmelman. Photo: Sandy Yonley

Himmelman was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety at 13. “I was out of therapy and not medicated by the time I started paddling,” he says. “I still have to manage by anxiety and deal with my OCD on a constant basis.”

It’s easy to get obsessive in sports, he says: “I can look at the same video a hundred times over and over trying to dissect it.” He can spin that in a positive way or beat himself up by wondering how he “turned into a bad athlete overnight.”

He wants to help others, so he’s outspoken about his own struggles. He’s part of a project that Canoe Kayak Canada’s Atlantic division launched before the pandemic to support athletes dealing with the pressures of competition and other stresses, including long stretches away from family and friends during training.

“As an athlete, it can be really hard to be honest about how you’re feeling mentally because you’re always pushing yourself,” says Himmelman.

He started hockey at four years old and played in Nova Scotia’s junior league. He finished his studies at Saint Mary’s University in 2021 as team captain of the lacrosse team. He continues to play the two sports for the camaraderie and to wind down. “It gives me a chance to turn my brain off,” he says. “I don’t think about paddling at all.”

After the disappointment of failing to make a couple of teams at nationals, Himmelman had to shift gears quickly. He was heading to Romania in a month. Instead of the sprints he’s spent most of the past eight years focused on, the Oct. 1 race was a marathon, 22.6 kilometres.

He’d competed in marathons before, but never with portages where he’d have to run with his canoe. And this one had five.

“This was a whole other mental state preparation,” he says. “I was proud of myself. Not just for the result — I finished in sixth place, which was the best Canadian men’s canoe result at that event — but also that I was able to mentally refocus after the rollercoaster experience at nationals.”

He trained with daily paddles of 15 to 18 km. Unlike track, where you’d never see a 100-metre sprinter run a 5k race, sprint canoers typically do long-distance paddles for the bulk of their training.

Pike and Canadian men’s sprint team head coach Andreas Dittmer, a German Olympic gold medallist now based in Halifax, are adamant about “the general aerobic training zone,” says Himmelman. “Around 70 per cent of your maximum heartrate is where 80 per cent of your training needs to be, whether you’re training for the 1,000 or 500. You need to have that level of fitness and aerobic capacity.”

The training zone is also where a paddler can adjust and learn the most about technique. “In our sport, it’s a lot easier to paddle technically better when you’re going faster. You’ve got the boat moving under you,” Himmelman explains. “It’s a lot harder to paddle technically when you’re going slower.”

The goal every morning is to work on being “more efficient at the same stroke rate and at the same heart rate,” he says.

Himmelman didn’t know competitive canoeing existed until he joined Maskwa, one of several paddling clubs that have helped Nova Scotia gain international recognition for excellence in the sport.

Forget your summer camp canoes. There’s no cane seat to perch on. With a single blade paddle in hand, competitors kneel on one knee with their other leg forward in a constant lunge, a style first used by Canadians.

“You really have to use your back. You extend out with your lats, you get your weight on the water with your top shoulder,” says Himmelman. “You’re trying to leverage your paddle over the water and get as much weight onto blade and onto the water as possible.”

His specialty is the C1 1000 and the 500-metre doubles sprint (C2 500).

“A lot of people think the C stands for canoe. It actually stands for Canadian-style canoe,” he says. “I’m very fortunate and lucky that I get to compete in a sport with such great Canadian and Indigenous roots.”

Himmelman says he’s “a notoriously slow starter,” but excels with his travel speed. “My goal is to hold my travel speed as high as I can get. Other people might try to go hard off the start and do a pickup at the 200 and 500 marks.”

For a 1,000-metre race, a sprinter with a rough start can make that up, making the race more tactical than the shorter 500 metres. “The 1k race is about four minutes, depending on conditions, so you have a lot more time to think,” says Himmelman. “In the 500, the margin of error is very minimal.”

Mother Nature can mess with a canoer’s head.

“Not every sport gets affected by weather conditions like we do,” Himmelman says. “Like if the wind is coming from the left side, it can affect one canoer more than another because we only paddle strokes on one side. Me, as a right, if the wind is coming from my paddle side, it gives me more of an advantage over the left paddlers.”

Pondering the weather forecast can occupy much of a canoer’s head space. “It’s a very hard part of our sport that we struggle sometimes to shut off our brain to say, ‘Oh, we can’t control it, don’t worry about it,’” he says. “At the end of the day, whatever the conditions are, it’s the same for everybody. You can’t control it. You just have to hammer down and race your best race despite what’s thrown at you.”

From the day his grandfather dropped him off at Maskwa, the 5’10” athlete has gone from a 125-pound “string bean” (or 130 pounds depending on how much he’d eaten on a given day) to 185 pounds, most of the gain in muscle. “I was always an undersized kid,” he says.

He trains between 10 and 12 hour-to-two-hour long sessions a week. On average, it’s three hours a day on the water, depending on the season, plus cross-training workouts, weight training, running, rowing, along with swimming and cross-country skiing in the off-season.

Himmelman also likes to throw in one or two yoga sessions a week. “That’s something that I do personally,” he says.

Maskwa kayaker Alexa Irvin remembers meeting Himmelman for the first time in the early days at an offseason training swim meet. “He was OK at swimming, not the best, not the worst, but he wanted to be in every single relay possible,” she says. “If people had to leave, he’d say, ‘Put me in, put me in.’”

The two are now training partners and Irvin, a Kentville native who’s doing her master’s in epidemiology at Dalhousie University, says Himmelman is no less hardworking and enthusiastic.

“Over the years we’ve done a lot of 6 a.m. paddles,” she says. “When we get there, no one’s energetic, but he’s probably the first one to wake up and get people excited to get on the water, even if it’s cold and dark.”

Like most amateur athletes, Himmelman juggles training and economic necessity. “Even though canoeing takes up a lot of my time, I still have to work,” he says. “I have rent, power bills, and expenses just like anybody else.”

Over the summer, he had three or four jobs on top of his grueling training schedule. He aspires to be an entrepreneur and is putting his SMU finance degree to work by helping out his father, financial advisor Brian Himmelman, and doing marketing for luxury car tourism start-up DreamDrive Vacations. In a sponsorship deal with RBC, he does community outreach and marketing as one of the bank’s financially supported Olympians.

He’s looking for more sponsors after losing his national team funding for the upcoming season, money he’s counted on for the past two years. “Despite having my best national team trial results and highest national rank ever in my career, I didn’t make the criteria to get funding again,” he says.

He’s unsure what criteria led to the lost federal financial support, but it’s not unusual for an athlete to see funding come and go.

“I’m going to be racing to try and get that funding back,” he says. “It a year-to-year kind of thing.”

A paddling career has a limited lifespan, often determined by the four-year Olympic cycles. Himmelman’s C2 partner Tom Hall retired at 23. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mark de Jonge, the famed Maskwa club kayaker Himmelman counts as a role model. The World Cup champion and Olympic bronze medalist, who’s among Nova Scotia’s top athletes of all time, is stepping down now in his mid-30s.

Himmelman will be 26 when he’s vying for a spot in the Paris Olympics. “I will have to decide if I want to do another four years and paddle until I’m 30 to do the 2028 Olympics. It’s usually after an Olympic year that people decide.”

While he enjoyed the recent marathon, it’s not an Olympic sport. His focus is on sprint. “It where the Olympic medals are, where the funding money is, where the most opportunities are,” he says.

Himmelman says he’d never seen his grandfather so excited as when Maskwa won the nationals in Dartmouth in 2016. “He had a T-shirt on that said, “Proud Paddling Grampy.”

It ended up the last race Jim Himmelman got to watch. He died later that year of brain cancer.

Himmelman says his next races on Lake Banook were tough without his grandfather there cheering and meeting him after at the end of the dock.

After a come-from-behind victory in a doubles sprint event, a finish-line photo shows Himmelman pointing to the sky. “I know Grampy was the third person paddling in that C2 race,” says Himmelman. “I know he still watches every single one of my races from above. He was my main support pillar for so many years.”

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