Start lines were nothing new to me. In fact, I had spent the better part of nearly six years trying to learn how to handle them. But for the first time in my life, all I felt was peace. I had traded my skis for oars, snow for rocky water, race anxiety for blissful calm. Somehow, changing my sport has changed me, my confidence and perception. Sitting there on the start line of the 2023 Canadian Secondary School Rowing Association (CSSRA) Nationals, in a boat with some of my closest friends, I knew I could do this—and do it well.
My racing career began in earnest when I was eight years old as part of the Squad program. Growing up in Whitehorse, Yukon, pride ran deep for the ski program, as it had produced several Olympians. Even as a kid, I thought about those athletes and the legacy I was a part of. But I loved cross-country skiing. Practice was fun! We slid around shrieking, fooling around and playing games. I distinctly remember feeling confident walking up to my first race, visions of my glorious victory consuming me. It might be too nice to say that that race absolutely humbled my ego. Victory was so far out of reach. The occasional race, while daunting, was so infrequent that it had little impact on my life. But as I grew older, races became more frequent, and as pressure grew, so did my anxiety.
I recall nights spent begging my parents to let me skip the race. I was scared of suffering, but more scared of my peers. They all felt and looked so fast, like bunnies gracefully hopping up the hills. In comparison, I felt like a walrus, flopping up the hill awkwardly and clumsily. And although my coach meant well, the pressure to beat my friends in races sent me deeper into my anxiety spiral. My teammates' passion for the sport and racing was perhaps what confused me the most; the idea that people actually enjoyed the horror and anxiety racing brought was unbelievable.
In 2022, at age 13, I entered The Best School Year Ever® contest, and was awarded the opportunity to study at SMUS. I was ecstatic. A combination of BC sport regulations regarding scholarship students and encouragement from family led me to consider rowing long before arriving in Victoria. When my ski squad friends asked what I would do for a sport at SMUS, I would proudly answer: “rowing.” My heart was set on the sport before even laying a hand on an oar, hopefully looking towards my future as a member of a team.
September came around, and I was introduced to a world of ergs and blisters through the doors of the Derby facility. Getting on the water at the SMUS Rowing Centre on the Gorge waterway had even more surprises in store: I learned that rowing shells were skinny and long, quite the opposite to my vision of a Gilbert Blythe-esque rowboat. My first time in a tippy quad I nearly cried for fear I would fall in, and the eight felt more like a staring contest with my oar than actual rowing… and only one oar per person? Our novice boat splashed down the Gorge like a ship of monkeys. And yet, somehow I was hooked. Rowing started to become more than an after school activity or a way to stay fit. It evolved into a passion, one that was revealing parts of myself I didn’t know existed. Motivated to work hard by my coaches and teammates, I learned how to truly suffer. My mental and athletic threshold expanded wildly. For the first time in my life, I would finish races and know that I had nothing left. I discovered that I actually was a competitive person and loved racing, I just needed a team to fight for in order to bring it out.
Rowing is a connection between the body and the mind unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It requires infinite patience, love and commitment to improve, to give it your all everyday. It's slightly maddening how there is always something to improve on, always a way to get faster and better. But it's also the beauty of the sport. You are never done learning, never done seeking excellence. Rowing means pursuing a challenge, not just to prove it to yourself, but also to your team and your coaches. One of the things that has kept me so passionate about the sport are the people. The SMUS Crew is a lively bunch, led by our wonderful coaches, most of whom are women. Being coached by so many successful and inspirational strong female figures is incredibly motivating. Through them, I see my own potential to grow. It also speaks to the quality of the SMUS rowing experience by how many of the coaches are SMUS rowing alumni themselves.
Joining the rowing team has also shown me my own value. In the environment the coaches have created, each member of the team is appreciated as an individual. The revelation that I would always be supported no matter what, was an immense boost to my confidence—part of the reason why my athletic performances have improved so greatly. I have always felt fueled by the power of the team spirit and support I feel all around me. Because of this, victory is now within reach.
Looking forward to this year, I hope to integrate new team members fully into the culture. I want them to discover their passion for the sport, so they can grow and discover that they can do anything, too. I want them to experience the feeling of rowing in an eight, each person rowing perfectly in tune, the boat gliding silently through morning mist. More than anything, I want to row a national championship race with these people. I know that even when I’m no longer a student at SMUS, I’ll still wear my washer necklace, and remember the team that shaped my high school experience in ways I’m sure I’ll never fully understand. I will always appreciate the ways this team has shown me my own strength and potential, helping me become the person that I am today.
As Mrs. Walker Curry says: one team, one family, always.
It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.