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 from her family released by Rowing Canada Aviron, the national governing body for rowing in the country. The statement said that Ms. Heddle had battled for years with breast and lymph node cancer, and later, melanoma and brain cancer.
In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Ms. Heddle and her rowing partner, Marnie McBean, won two gold medals, in the pairs and the eights. At the 1994 World Championships, Ms. Heddle and Ms. McBean won a silver medal in the double sculls.
At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Ms. Heddle and Ms. 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, Ms. Heddle and Ms. McBean became the first Canadians to win three Olympic gold medals in any sport, the organization said.
The following year Ms. Heddle and Ms. McBean were inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
On Tuesday night, Ms. McBean wrote on Twitter about the death of her rowing partner, calling Ms. Heddle the “Greatest of All Time.”
“I am crushed and without words today at this loss,” she added.
In the statement from Rowing Canada Aviron, Ms. Heddle’s family said, “A country and a sport got to know and understand her resolve.”
Kathleen Joan Heddle was born on Nov. 27, 1965, in Trail, British Columbia, about 400 miles east of Vancouver. When Kathleen was 8 months old, her parents, Duncan, a mining engineer, and the former Marilyn Buchanan, a registered dietitian and homemaker, moved the family to Kitsilano, a neighborhood in Vancouver that abuts the English Bay. The family also included two other daughters, Libby and Peggy, and a son, Murray.
Ms. Heddle remained in Vancouver, settling in the nearby neighborhood of Kerrisdale with her husband, Mike Bryden, whom she married in October 2000. They have two teenage children, Lyndsey (a student at the University of British Columbia and a member of the rowing team) and Mac.
In addition to her husband and children, Ms. Heddle is survived by her sisters, Libby Heddle and Peggy Neal.
When Ms. Heddle enrolled at the University of British Columbia, she was tall and athletic, hoping to make a mark for herself in the world of volleyball. But it was in Ms. Heddle’s third year at the university in the 1980s when she was “picked out of a lineup” because of her height (5 feet 11 inches) and recruited to join the school’s rowing team, she told the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
“It was a pretty obscure sport then,” she said, “so they would try to recruit people who they thought had the right build and had potential.”
“I was hooked right away,” recalled Ms. Heddle. “I liked the balance between brute strength and power with finesse.”
At the time, Ms. Heddle was 19 and her volleyball aspirations “had stalled,” according to the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame. She quickly adapted to her new sport and excelled. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1990 from the university and continued with her newfound passion.
By 1987, Ms. 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.
At the 1991 World Cup in Switzerland, Ms. Heddle paired up with Ms. McBean for the first time. In their first race together they beat the defending world champions, according to the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1999 Ms. Heddle was awarded the Thomas Keller Medal, an honor given each year to a recently retired athlete who has “a long and successful rowing career and who has made an outstanding contribution to rowing as a competitor and as a sports personality,” according to the World Rowing Federation, the governing body for the sport.
Though Ms. Heddle quickly ascended to 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,” Ms. Heddle said, according to the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame. There was, she said, “a burden to meet the expectations people place on us.” When she won, she said, “it was more a feeling of relief than anything else.”