Women's rowing eights crew returns to Victoria, Olympic gold in hand

The lateness of the hour did not deter a large crowd of family, friends and supporters from welcoming home the Tokyo Olympic-champion Canadian women’s rowing eights crew Saturday night at Victoria International Airport.

The flight arrived at 11:30 p.m. Strict COVID protocols meant the athletes had to return via Toronto — a circuitous route adding about eight hours to the trip. Athletes must vacate the Olympic village 24 hours after their competition concludes, and Games officials would not allow the team to wait a day for the next scheduled flight to Vancouver.

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But the rowers, based at Elk Lake at the national rowing centre, were all smiles despite the lengthy journey. Gold-medallist Susanne Grainger was hugged by her husband, Neil Wereley, as she passed through the arrivals doorway at the Victoria airport.

“It’s incredible to see all these people here to welcome us. It’s Canadian pride showing through,” she said.

“It’s unbelievable and still not really sunk in, yet.”

Added teammate Christine Roper: “It’s very emotional coming home to family and friends.”

Several of the rowers were reflective of the path that got them to the top of the podium.

“The Brentwood College rowing tradition honed my skills and were a big part of this journey,” said Sydney Payne. “Brentwood College fostered my love of the sport.”

For Canadian crew member Avalon Wasteneys of Campbell River, it was the University of Victoria rowing program that nurtured her after she switched from cross-country skiing.

“UVic rowing was hugely instrumental in supporting me and helping get me to the top of the Olympic podium,” she said.

Not to mention her genes. Wasteneys’ mom, 1988 Seoul Olympian Heather Clarke, and aunt Christine Clarke, who competed in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, were also roweres.

“That’s a pretty special family connection,” she said.

Until sprinter Andre De Grasse struck for 100-metre bronze early Sunday, all Canadian medals in the Tokyo Summer Games had been won by female athletes. The Canadian women’s eights gold medallists said not to read too much into that and none of the rowers could put point to a reason for it.

“We all work hard,” Roper said. “We are going to see both Canadian women and men on the podium as the Games progress.”

Wasteneys concurred that it’s hard to find anything systemic about the situation.

“Our men’s program really pushes us in training,” she said.

The golden Canadian crew consisted of Wasteneys, Grainger, Roper, Payne, Lisa Roman, Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski, Andrea Proske, Madison Mailey and coxswain Kristen Kit. They won the first Olympic gold medal for Canada in the women’s eight since 1992 in Barcelona.

“That was a huge part of our inspiration,” Payne said.

“We see several members of the 1992 crew at the [Elk Lake] boathouse on a regular basis.”

The rowing competition of the Tokyo Olympics concluded with Canada earning two medals through the women’s eight and Caileigh Filmer of Victoria and Hillary Janssens of Cloverdale in the women’s pair. They were the 42nd and 43rd Olympic medals won by Canada in rowing, the third highest total among Canadian sports in the Summer Games behind track and field and swimming.

There was an agonizing close call, as well, with the Canadian men’s pair of Kai Langerfeld of Parksville, a graduate of Ballenas Secondary, and veteran and London 2012 Olympic-medallist Conlin McCabe edged for the bronze medal by half a second by Denmark.

Canada won just one rowing medal at Rio 2016, when Victoria rowers Patricia Obee and Lindsay Jennerich won silver in the women’s lightweight double.

The national team rowers train on Elk Lake in Saanich and Quamichan Lake in North Cowichan and will be vacating their long-time home on Elk Lake exclusively for Quamichan Lake post-Tokyo.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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