Kathleen Heddle, who won three Olympic gold medals rowing for Canada in the 1990s and inspired a generation of athletes, died on Monday at her home in Vancouver, British Columbia. She was 55.
Her death was announced in a statement by her family released by Rowing Canada Aviron, the national governing body for rowing. It said that Heddle had breast and lymph node cancer for years and later melanoma and brain cancer.
In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Heddle and her rowing partner, Marnie McBean, won two gold medals, in the pairs and the eights. At the 1994 World Championships, they won a silver medal in the double sculls.
At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Heddle and McBean won a gold medal in the double sculls, a 2,000-meter competition in which they led the race from start to finish, according to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. With that, the organization said, they became the first Canadians to win three Olympic gold medals in any sport.
Heddle and McBean were inducted into the Hall of Fame the next year.
On Tuesday night, on Twitter, McBean called her rowing partner the “Greatest of All Time.”
Kathleen Joan Heddle was born on Nov. 27, 1965, in Trail, British Columbia, about 400 miles east of Vancouver. When she was 8 months old, her parents, Duncan Heddle, a mining engineer, and Marilyn (Buchanan) Heddle, a registered dietitian and homemaker, moved the family to Kitsilano, a neighborhood in Vancouver that abuts the English Bay.
Heddle remained in Vancouver, settling in the nearby neighborhood of Kerrisdale with her husband, Mike Bryden, whom she married in October 2000. He survives her, as do their two teenage children, Lyndsey (a student at the University of British Columbia and a member of the rowing team) and Mac; and her sisters, Libby Heddle and Peggy Neal.
When Heddle enrolled at the University of British Columbia, she hoped to make a name for herself in volleyball. But in her third year, in the 1980s, she was “picked out of a lineup” because of her height, 5 feet 11 inches, and recruited to join the school’s rowing team.
“It was a pretty obscure sport then,” she told the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, “so they would try to recruit people who they thought had the right build and had potential.”
“I was hooked right away,” she recalled. “I liked the balance between brute strength and power with finesse.”
At the time, Heddle was 19 and her volleyball aspirations “had stalled,” according to the Hall of Fame. She quickly adapted to her new sport and excelled. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the university in 1990 and continued with her newfound passion.
By 1987, Heddle had earned a spot on the Canadian national rowing team and won a gold medal in the pair event at the Pan American Games.
She paired with McBean for the first time at the 1991 World Cup in Switzerland. In their first race together, they beat the defending world champions.
Though Heddle quickly reached the upper echelon of rowing, she acknowledged that the rise came with a challenge.
“Rowing was seen as a medal sport in Canada, and we were seen as the favorites,” the Hall of Fame quoted her as saying. There was, she said, “a burden to meet the expectations people place on us,” and when she won, she added, “it was more a feeling of relief than anything else.”