Sidney rowers right at home for coastal worlds

The nearly 500 rowers, from 24 nations, have travelled great distances to compete in the 2018 FISA world coastal rowing championships taking place off Tulista Park.

Norm Healey just had to walk 10 minutes from his Sidney house. He qualified fourth, with partner and two-time Olympian Anna-Marie de Zwager of Victoria, behind France, Sweden and Germany for Saturday’s A final in the mixed double. That’s what you call home-water advantage. But it has been a long journey in many other ways.

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Healey was good enough to row varsity for the University of Victoria Vikes powerhouse program in the late 1980s and early 1990s, wining at Canadian Henley, before focusing on his studies. He kept fit running, cycling and competing in triathlons but had not been in a rowing boat since retiring from the sport in 1993. That all changed when Healey was running along the Sidney waterfront this summer and saw a coastal rowing boat on the beach. Alongside it was 1992 Barcelona Olympics double gold-medallist Brenda Taylor, whom Healey knew from the old days “and all that tremendous excitement at Elk Lake surrounding the 1992 Olympics.” As it happens, Taylor is the chairman of the world coastal championships organizing committee. A conversation ensued, and one thing led to another, and Taylor set Healey up with de Zwager. And now here they are in the A final of the world championships.

“This is a dream come true,” said Healey, a 48-year-old environmental toxicologist.

“It’s been 25 years in the making for me [since he last rowed]. I have to pinch myself that this is really happening.”

Coastal rowing, however, has provided a different challenge from his former rowing days on Elk Lake.

“You have to deal with the wind, waves and current in coastal rowing. You need more outward awareness,” said Healey, a father of two, who was also set to contest the men’s singles qualifying on Friday.

De Zwager, meanwhile, also only took up coastal rowing over the summer.

“It’s been 10 years since I competed in the Olympics at Beijing and this seemed like the right time to dip my toes back in the water, especially with the coastal worlds happening in our own backyard,” she said.

“Then you get down here and realize what a big deal this is, especially among the European rowers.”

De Zwager was originally supposed to row with Olympic gold-medallist Adam Kreek in the mixed pair but when Kreek got injured, she was paired with Healey.

“[Healey] is back in a rowing boat after all these years and he has been such a great partner,” said de Zwager.

“Norm is a triathlete and remained super fit since his rowing days.”

De Zwager, an exercise therapist, has found big differences in coastal rowing from her years on Elk Lake in which she qualified for the 2004 Athens and 2008 Olympics: “You sometimes see whales and sea lions in coast rowing and it’s almost like you are sightseeing. That’s something you don’t see on a lake in flatwater rowing.”

De Zwager will be in two finals today. She also teamed with 2008 Beijing Olympic teammate Zoe Light to qualify fifth for today’s A final in the women’s double.

“We were in Beijing together at the Olympics and it’s been great to race with Zoe again,” she said.

The world championships conclude with the A and B finals Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Vendors, food trucks, a craft beer and wine garden and entertainment have provided a festival feel at Tulista Park. Admission to the world championships is free.

Coastal rowing involves sculls racing from four to six kilometres in singles, doubles and coxed quad. The sculls are self-bailing and wider, heavier and more stable than regular rowing craft. Coastal rowing is not yet in the Olympics, but will be making its debut in the Pan Am Games next year in Lima, Peru.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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