Andrew Byrnes is very much at home in Victoria, British Columbia. After spending many long training sessions, days, and years at the hub of the Canadian Olympic Rowing program, he’s settling into his first house and planning to get married in September. Since the end of his rowing career in 2012, Byrnes has appreciated the fact that “two day weekends are pretty great.” But just as Byrnes battled through three practices per day, six days a week that were “meant to push you to the point of failure, to force you to go as hard as you can and then try to go a little harder,” he continues to live with an attitude of ultimate effort and dedication.
Today, the only Olympic gold medalist in Bates’ illustrious athletic history works for DEC Engineering, a mechanical engineering firm that builds district energy and renewable energy systems. Armed with a Bachelor’s of Science degree from Bates, a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and a resolute grittiness cultivated in his Olympic quests, Byrnes sets the highest expectations for himself. He works as late as he needs to in order to get his job done, and he even absorbs relevant engineering articles during his “free” time in the pursuit of being the best he can possibly be. At Bates, Byrnes found the ideal environment to strive towards his immense potential academically and athletically.
Unlike many Olympians who start their sport as soon as they can walk, Byrnes didn’t begin rowing until his senior year of high school. As a result, he wasn’t heavily recruited by large Division I rowing schools, although it’s clear that Division III Bates was a better fit. “I liked the people, the place, the academics, and the rowing program,” says Byrnes. “I didn’t came to Bates to row; I came to learn. I’m glad I didn’t go to a school with a high profile rowing program just to be an athlete, because I would’ve sacrificed my education.” At the time, crew at Bates had only been a varsity sport for few years. With the team constantly growing and improving, Byrnes has good memories from his tenure, and he recalls that a 2003 President’s Cup victory by the men’s varsity eight over Bowdoin and Colby was especially satisfying. Once he submitted his thesis (on nanotechnology in physical chemistry) and grasped his degree, Byrnes left Bates to earn his Masters at Penn, establishing himself as an elite rower whenever he wasn’t studying.
During his year and a half in Philadelphia, Byrnes competed for the prestigious Vesper Boat Club, transitioning from New England collegiate foes to opponents familiar with the world of national and even international crew. Andrew Carter, Byrnes’ coach at Bates and a fellow Canadian (as well as the current University of Iowa coach) gave Byrnes valuable insight into the Canadian rowing apparatus. A duel citizen, it soon became apparent that, given the greater odds of standing out amongst the smaller Canadian group and the methodical, detail oriented nature of their approach, it would be wise to accept Team Canada’s invitation to be part of their development program.
Just a couple days before departing for Victoria in December 2006, Byrnes’ car was stolen in Philadelphia. “It was actually fine, since I didn’t need it anymore,” he says. All the travel Byrnes would need to do over the next several years was of the aerial variety. From Amsterdam to Lucerne, Switzerland to Beijing, Byrnes has traveled the world. Along the way, he has won four world championship medals, including a gold in the 2007 men’s eights, along with multiple medals at World Cup events. But an Olympic Gold is the greatest prize of all. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Byrnes felt “pretty lucky to be part of an extremely experienced group,” though the pressure of being the favorites was also palpable. When the Canadian eight crossed the line ahead of the British, Byrnes says the moment was “honestly characterized by a lot of relief, though it was also of course hugely rewarding.” Between Beijing and London 2012, Byrnes was completely dedicated to the next Olympics; “as soon as one finishes, you’re thinking about the next one,” he recalls. Heading into the race in 2012, Byrnes assumed more of a leadership role on a less heralded team than the 2008 group. With Canada starting their final sprint with about 600 meters of the 2,000 meters race remaining (as opposed to the typical 250-300 meters), another medal looked improbable. Undeterred, the Canadians “emptied [their] tanks,” passing the British boat in the home stretch and stealing Silver. Falling backwards into the boat in utter exhaustion, Byrnes, “heard cheering, so I thought we had gotten bronze.” Seconds later, he saw that he actually now had a miraculous Silver to add to his Beijing Gold.
As I talked with Byrnes on the phone, I found myself getting pumped, and it wasn’t because he was spewing clichés. Rather, he was speaking a truth that he had intimately learned about motivation. “It comes down to, ‘How badly do you want it?’” he told me. “Then it’s about putting in as much effort and time as possible, and getting the job done.” Despite that defining determination, Byrnes has a prudent attitude when it comes to ambitions. “There are stepping stones,” he said. “You slowly climb one step at a time, and you don’t see the top until you’re close to it.” He noted that, “it wasn’t like I wanted to win a Gold Medal since I was a little kid. But what’s important is always looking for what’s that next step, and going after that new goal.”
In the workplace, Byrnes recognizes that the inner strength he gained as an athlete is a major asset. Even though he essentially “is eight years behind my peers” in his traditional career path, Byrnes knows that he can accomplish whatever goal he desires, and then move on to the next one. The tangible proof of that are his Olympics medals, stored in a drawer in his bedside table. “Nothing fancy,” he says.