Indoor rowing competitions are an indicator of physical and mental fitness. COURTESY OF DEVIN WARD

On February 9, the Varsity Blues rowing team woke up before dawn to a cold winter day. Each team member pulled on their ‘T’-emblazoned unisuit and braved the frigid weather to trek to a bus parked outside of the Varsity Centre, en route to the Canadian Indoor Rowing Championships (CIRCs) in Mississauga.

Very few things are as stressful for a rower as a two-kilometre test on the rowing machine. The test is a main marker of physical and mental fitness, and every rower knows it ­— the time you get is your ticket to making the team. Every second in a two-kilometre sprint counts, and every minute of training that an athlete clocks is motivated by shaving off as much time as possible. That’s why when rowers are competing not just against themselves, but against others in a massive stadium at the CIRC, the pressure is on.

The CIRCs are annual competitions held at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre that beckon rowing clubs from all over Canada to send their fastest athletes to compete purely on rowing machines. Despite the pressure that it puts on a rower’s off-season, it’s a welcomed outlet for all the pent-up competitiveness that can build in long, cold winters of indoor training and no races.

“A two-kilometre race is very stressful, it takes a week of mental preparation,” said Matthew D’Amico, third-year member of the men’s open weight team. “I go to bed early [the night before] because I know I’m going to be up and stressed for a few hours.” D’Amico said that CIRCs only heightens his pre-race anxiety: “It’s a lot tougher when there’s a crowd watching you.”

The pressure of the competition, however, is addictive: “You love to hate it,” said CIRC silver medalist and U of T rower Claire Kendall. This year, Kendall entered as third seed overall, and crushed a personal best to snag second place. “I make very specific plans weeks ahead,” she elaborated. “I went to [my coach’s] office twice the week before the competition so he could look it over.” Despite her nerves, Kendall said that the hard work of winter training will push you through: “my fitness really paid off.”

Most of all, it’s worth doing because when you row, you do it as a team. Katy Myler, silver medalist of the 1,000-metre coxswain race, said that the best part is to “prepare together, and win together” as Blues. “It was a fun race, and it felt nice to see [my teammate] Zoe Thompson and I ahead and everyone else way behind.”

So despite the nerves, the fierce competition, and the preference for the on-water races of warmer weather, the Blues will certainly be a regular sight at the CIRCs for years to come. There is, after all, no better feeling than a medal around your neck.

Disclosure: Laura Ashwood is a member of the 2019-2020 Varsity Blues Rowing team.

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