On an average day, Burford’s Caleb McCleary burns more than 4,000 calories before lunch.
The 18-year-old is on the right track to represent Canada at the Olympics, possibly as early as 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Training at the National Development Centre in Welland this summer, McCleary has been identified by Row Ontario and Athletics Canada for specialized training aimed at making him one of the top athletes in the world.
“I tried out and hit the national development athlete level,” McCleary said. “I’m only 18 and it’s a under-23 team, so I am very happy with that. It was just after Christmas I became a carded athlete. With that I have to follow everything they want me to do.”
Once recruited as a part of the national under-23 development rowing team, McCleary headed for Welland as soon as his first year at the University of Western Ontario was complete.
His summer has consisted of a gruelling routine.
McCleary is up every day at 5:30 a.m. to eat his oatmeal and bike 10 km to practice. At 7:30 a.m., he and his fellow athletes take part in a two-hour rowing session.
The team is back on the water again by 11:30 a.m. for a second rowing session.
By the time he rides his bike home, McCleary said he has burned somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 calories.
Being a carded national athlete doesn’t pay all the bills, though, so McCleary then bikes to work at a meat packing plant, where he works from 2 p.m. until 8 p.m.
Then it’s back home for dinner.
McCleary has been on the path to becoming an elite athlete for some time. He was 12 years old when a trainer at a hockey goaltender camp noticed his ability on the rowing machine.
“He said I could always be a good goalie, but I could be an exceptional rower,” McCleary said.
McCleary’s parents, Rick and Ellen, picked up a rowing machine for the house and he started training on it.
“I went to the Canadian Indoor Rowing Championships and won a bronze,” he said. “Another year of training by myself, with no coach or anything, and I won the gold.”
McCleary signed up with the Silver Lake Rowing Club in Port Dover and continued training and winning medals.
After completing Grade 9 at Assumption College in Brantford, McCleary was awarded a scholarship to move to British Columbia and complete his education at the specialized Shawnigan Lake School for athletes.
Under the tutelage of former Olympic champions, McCleary continued on his path of success and ultimately chose to attend the University of Western Ontario last September.
McCleary looked at some of the major rowing universities in the United States, but wanted to be close to Burford for his post-secondary education.
In his first year of university-level rowing, McCleary’s boats never lost a race as the Mustangs men’s team swept the Ontario University Athletics championships and then the Canadian University Rowing Championships.
McCleary will head back to Western in the fall, but must stay on the training plan provided to him by under-23 team trainers.
McCleary specializes in single and doubles lightweight scull boats. That means he must keep his weight at 160 pounds.
He believes, if he stays on course, that the 2016 Olympic Games are not out of the question.
But it is certainly a bold goal. The average age of a member of the Canadian mens’ rowing team at the 2008 Olympics was 32. McCleary will only be 22 in 2016.
“It’s kind of high hopes,” he said. “But I am aiming for one of the two spots that might possibly open up on the lightweight boat.
“With enough training, maybe I can beat someone out for the spot.”
The next stepping stone for McCleary will be making the under-23 rowing world championships in 2013.
“It’s a bunch of little stepping stones,” he said. “The training centre is developing us to row with the same style. You can’t have someone who leans back a little with somebody who leans back a lot. It throws the boat right off.
“Once we have the same technique, they look at our scores and try us out in different boats to see how fast we can go. If I can make the world (championships), that is when the senior and Olympic teams really start to get interested in me.”
McCleary said faith plays a large role in his motivation.
“I am the co-president of a group called Athletes in Action at Western,” he said. “We are a group of Christian athletes that get together. Our whole basis is that we do sport to bring glory to God instead of our own needs and desires.
“I believe I am doing this for a higher purpose. I was given this ability, I should take it as far as I can.”
Even if his plans for a quick progression through Canada’s rowing ranks doesn’t happen with the timing McCleary has in mind, he said he will be back year after year to try again.
“I will never stop wanting to be better until I am the best,” he said.
McCleary also hopes to make waves as an individual competitor at the famed Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in St. Catharines in a few weeks time. He already has one gold medal from that event, winning the junior men single competition in 2010.