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“I just want to lead by example”: in conversation with rower Alison Okumura

The women’s team captain recalls beginnings, hopes for the future
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SEYRAN MAMMADOV/VARSITY BLUES
SEYRAN MAMMADOV/VARSITY BLUES

When you think of the Varsity Blues, rowing may not be the first sport that comes to mind, but for women’s rowing team captain Alison Okumura, rowing is as vital as it gets. With three Ontario University Athletics bronze medal wins last year and high hopes going forward, Okumura is excited to return to the water with her team once protocol permits. Training has been hard with everyone separated, but Okumura herself has found ways to keep in peak form.

“We’re unable to practice together as a team yet,” she said. “We’re all going on our own and at our own separate clubs, but hopefully we’ll be back soon.”

That’s the idea.

If there can be one consolation to Okumura and her teammates it’s that rowing is one of the safer sports during the pandemic. Being in a bubble with your teammates is one thing, but in sports like basketball, hockey, or football, the worry becomes more about travel and inter-school contact than sharing a space with 10 of your teammates. Out on the open water, however, you don’t have to worry about catching anything from your competition.

On a similar note, I was curious about how a rower breaks into the sport. It’s not the most accessible, requiring equipment, a team, and — well — water, so I was interested in how Okumura got her start.

“I started in grade 10, but I was playing more hockey at the time,” she said. 

It was a trip to a local sport competition show, RBC Training Ground, that led her in the direction of rowing. It’s sort of like America’s Got Talent but for potential Olympic athletes. Okumura didn’t know what to expect at first, but after completing the program’s tests, she was approached and strongly encouraged to pursue rowing due to her strength and endurance. 

According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, rowers tend to have more muscle mass and especially strong backs and  legs. You might think that more muscle could slow the boat down, but the speed gained from the added power is more significant than the drag.

For Okumura, the shift from being a multi-sport athlete to a more specialized one couldn’t have been easy, but the fast success that came with it showed her that this is what she was meant to do. Okumura takes her leadership role as team captain very seriously but never lets the added responsibility go to her head.

“I just want to lead by example,” she said. “I think the team can be really strong this year, and hopefully, we can get back and pick up some more hardware.”

With Okumura and her teammates having one of the clearer paths, even in a COVID-19-centric future, she’ll certainly get her chance. 

Expect big things from her, U of T — you won’t be disappointed.