Knapkova’s Olympic Secret

Last year’s Olympic winner in women’s single sculls, Czech Republic’s Mirka Knapková had to walk a more difficult path to gold than it might have looked. As the media in her homeland intensely discussed after the victorious race, she had gone through the whole Olympic regatta with an injury.

Knapková’s progression at Eton Dorney looked as clear as it could be: she won her heat (on 28 July), quarterfinal (31 July), and semifinal (2 August).

But, at the start of the A final (4 August), Czech Television’s commentator Pavel Čapek revealed to the audience that the Czech sculler “was fighting serious health problems”. It turned out that there was a problem but only Knapková’s close circle knew about it, including a few journalist fellow-countrymen – and they decided to keep it secret so that the sculler does not get distracted by media attention and her rivals are not granted psychological advantage.

As rowing observers (including Czech men’s sculling coach, Milan Doleček Sr.) pointed out, it probably was due to the health challenge that Knapková reached the perfect concentration and her rowing style became simpler and more economic.

“Being close to such an achievement will stay inside me until the end of my life,” says Czech physiotherapy doctor Pavel Kolář who helped the rower in her critical moments. In an interview published on the Czech news website Idnes.cz (affiliated with a broad-circulation daily, Mladá fronta Dnes) on 27 December 2012, Kolář remembers how he was called to help after the heats of women’s singles: “The whole of Mirka’s shoulder-blade hurt. Even my intervention didn’t show any remarkable improvement.” An MRI screening indicated a torn shoulder-blade fixator. As Kolář recalls the morning of the quarterfinal day, “Mirka went out for a warm-up row on the venue and came back in ten minutes in tears, saying it doesn’t work, and that she wouldn’t go.” Just at the breakfast did the therapist, the athlete and her coach, Tomáš Kacovský, agree they would give it a try. In Kolář’s words, “we said we would try a solid kinesiotaping, apply medicaments and acupuncture. All that done with a risk that she might finish within the first meters but still didn’t have anything to lose.” And it worked.

With Mission Quarterfinal accomplished, the doctor continued to perform his art. In the days between races, “we conducted physical therapies, laser procedures, acupuncture, and everything possible to somehow decrease pain and edema. Of course, we also included some medicaments that she could take within the limits of sport competition,” Kolář describes how he treated Knapková during the Olympics.

Website Idnes.cz concludes the interview with the rehabilitation specialist by quoting the Czech Rowing Association President, Jiří Kejval, who said after the Olympic finals of women’s singles: “If it hadn’t been for Pavel Kolář, we wouldn’t have had the Olympic champion.”

Knapková’s victory may be the most stunning rowing achievement of its kind since the fabulous performance of Canada’s Silken Laumann who earned the bronze medal in the 1992 Olympic final of women’s single although she rowed with a severe leg injury.

The Magician of Sport

It was not for the first time that Pavel Kolář, 49 years of age, helped a Czech athlete to overcome bodily woes. The university teacher of physiotherapy earlier healed Olympic winners such as Jan Železný (javelin throw), Roman Šebrle (decathlon), Martin Doktor (canoe sprint), Jaromír Jágr (ice hockey), and Kateřina Neumannová (crosscountry skiing). Among his “common” patients were Czech Republic’s presidents, Václav Havel and Václav Klaus.

Members of Mirka Knapková’s original rowing club, Lodní sporty Brno, watch her Olympic final on the television

Days After the Gold

Due to the injury, the post-Olympic Knapková was ordered to observe physical rest for six weeks. Her first travel led her back to Great Britain where she had planned a vacation with friends in Wales. She found herself back in the rowing shell in late September at city sprints in Lucerne, Switzerland (where she won) and surfed further on the Swiss wave: in late October at Armada Cup near Bern (second only to the local sculler, Pamela Weisshaupt) and then in mid-November at Basel Head (winning with her club’s eight).

Though rowing is a rather marginal sport in the Czech Republic, Knapková admitted to the media it was pleasant to know that people in the streets started to recognise her but at the same time found out there was no mercantile value added to it (“I haven‘t shot any commercial”, she told a journalist).

On 19 December, Knapková was clasified third in the Czech Athlete of the Year, a nationwide sports journalists’ poll, where her rowing success had to compete for attention with the country’s other three Olympic champions.

For the next season, the queen of Czech sculling thinks of adding another racing event to the single – in her words, “the bigger the boat will be, the better”.

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