Laumann, Silken (1964—)

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Laumann, Silken (1964—)

Canadian athlete and motivational speaker. Born Silken Laumann on November 14, 1964, in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada; daughter of Hans Laumann and Seigrid Laumann; sister of Danielle Laumann (b. 1961), also seen as Daniele; educated in Mississauga public schools; attended University of Victoria, 1984–86; University of Western Ontario, B.A., 1988; married John Wallace; children: William.

Won the bronze medal in double sculls with sister Danielle at the Olympics (1984); won two World Cup championships in rowing (1991); overcame difficult circumstances to win the bronze medal in single sculls at the Olympics (1992); won silver medal in single sculls at the Olympics (1996).

Born in Mississauga, Ontario, in 1964, Silken Laumann began sculling when she was 17, training on the Credit River with her older sister Danielle Laumann . Only two years later, the sisters won the bronze medal in double sculls at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. With such a quick rise to the top in her new sport, the sky seemed the limit for Laumann, who, unlike her sister, was determined to pursue an athletic career in earnest. However, in 1985, Laumann began to experience severe back pain whenever she rowed. Medical authorities determined that she suffered from a congenital curvature of the spine, which was aggravated by the movements involved in sculling. Despite the pain, Laumann was unwilling to abandon rowing. A disappointing finish in seventh place at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, shook her confidence, and she briefly considered giving up the sport.

In 1989, unhappy with the way Canadian women's rowing teams trained, Laumann began training with the men's rowing team, coached by Michael Spracklen. "I had worked hard before," she told Maclean's magazine, "but with Mike, I knew that I was putting my effort into something that would work." Two years later, competing as an individual racer in the women's heavyweight division, she won the World Cup of rowing. This honor is bestowed on the competitor who scores the largest total of points in a series of races. Competing in the 2,000-meter singles at the same competition, Laumann took the world championship, narrowly defeating Rumania's Elisabeta Lipa . These dual wins in 1991 made Laumann the woman to beat at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

However, in May of 1992, less than three months before the Summer Games, Laumann suffered severe injuries while warming up for a rowing competition in Essen, Germany. A German boat struck Laumann's boat, driving part of it into her right leg, breaking a bone and ripping nerves, muscles, and ligaments. For a brief time, it appeared the accident might end her rowing career. "The muscles on the outside of my right leg were peeled back and hanging down to the ankle," she told Maclean's. "I think that's why the doctors thought I would never row again. In a person of average fitness, they would have just cut the muscle off. The blood wouldn't get back up there, and the tissue would die. But my muscle has lived. It's basically astounding, and I guess I'm surprising a lot of doctors." No less astounding was the speed with which Laumann bounced back from this devastating injury. While still bedridden in the hospital, she began exercising to keep her upper body in shape. She underwent a number of operations and a skin graft. Before she was fully able to walk again, she returned to her scull, having missed less than a month of training.

Laumann's performance in the Barcelona Games was hailed by sports commentators and singled out as one of the most inspirational moments in the history of the Olympics. Still able to walk only with the help of a leg brace, she prepared for her event by stripping off the brace at the dock and lowering herself into her scull with pain evident on her face. She rowed to a bronze medal, finishing behind Elisabeta Lipa and Annelies Bredael of Belgium. "I chose to work on the premise that there was a little light at the end of the tunnel," said Laumann, "and that I could work towards that light." For much of the race, she was in fourth place, trailing Anne Marden of the United States. "With about 1,000 meters to go, I thought I was going to die," she later recalled. "I knew I couldn't win, but I wanted one of the medals. I said to myself, 'I'm not coming in fourth.' Fourth is the worst position—to just miss a medal." Laumann focused her attention on Marden, concentrating all her energies on overtaking the American. Just a few meters before the finish line, she pulled ahead of Marden and held on to third place.

Twice named Canada's female athlete of the year (1991 and 1992), Laumann received a number of honors during her years as a rower. She was given the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's outstanding athlete in 1991, received the Meritorious Services Cross in 1994, had a street named in her honor in her native Mississauga, and was awarded honorary degrees from several Canadian universities. In 1996, she was the subject of a made-for-television film, Golden Will: The Silken Laumann Story, and in 1997 she received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award.

In 1995, Laumann won gold medals in single and quadruple sculls at the Pan-American Games; officials later stripped her of these medals when drug tests detected an over-the-counter cold medicine she had taken during the week of the race. At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, she rowed to a silver medal in the single sculls. Largely on the strength of her 1992 Olympic victory, Laumann started lecture tours in Canada and the United States, making about 30 speeches each year to young people.

In March of 1999, Laumann officially announced her retirement from competitive rowing. In a press conference in Victoria, British Columbia, where she lived with husband John Wallace and young son William, she said that she had lost the "competitive desire" she considered essential to success. Summing up her career, despite the adversity, Laumann had earlier noted, "There are not that many areas of your life where you can be one of the best in the world."


Greenspan, Bud. 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History. Los Angeles, CA: General Publishing, 1995.

Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 1998.

Who's Who of Canadian Women, 1997. Toronto: Who's Who Publications, 1997.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania