Rowing in the winter: how to compete when the lake freezes over

The Varsity Blues rowing team compete at the Canadian Indoor Rowing Championships

Rowing in the winter: how to compete when the lake freezes over

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.

Why the Varsity Blues matter

An introduction to The Varsity 's Sports section

Why the Varsity Blues matter

There’s a simple story regarding how I first started writing for The Varsity’s Sports section.

The July before my first semester, I sat across from then-Sports Editor Emma Kikulis in the lounge at The Varsity’s office and shared my ideas with her, in an enthusiastic and nervous fashion, characteristic of an incoming university student.

Back then, I wasn’t aware that eventually succeeding her was even a possibility. I was just eager to write about sports.

A few days before I attended my first class, I sat in the press box at Varsity Stadium and watched the Blues lose a high-scoring 55–33 game to the McMaster Marauders. Blues running back Divante Smith rushed for 112 yards and scored three touchdowns, while Marauders quarterback Asher Hastings threw for a ridiculous 384 yards and five touchdowns. I couldn’t think of a more entertaining introduction to Varsity Blues athletics.

Blues quarterback Simon Nassar, who towered above my audio recorder during the postgame interview, earnestly answered my questions about Smith’s performance and how the team could rebound from the loss. He even mentioned how cool he thought it was that I was covering the football team for The Varsity and thanked me for it.

Three weeks later, I was back at Varsity Stadium to cover the Blues women’s soccer team. The Trent Excaliburs didn’t provide much of an opposing force on that Friday evening, as striker Natasha Klasios scored a hat-trick to lead the Blues to a 6–1 victory.

However, it wasn’t until I became The Varsity’s Sports Editor as a third-year student that I fully embraced Varsity Blues athletics and understood what the program stands for. That happened after I finished an internship for Vice Sports in April 2017.

At Vice, I was educated on Canada’s sports media landscape while working on a story informed by former Ontario University Athletics (OUA) president Peter Baxter on the importance of varsity-level athletics for student athletes and the need for more coverage.

After being elected Sports Editor, it wasn’t hard to guess how I wanted to spend the next year of my life. I just couldn’t have predicted how incredible the experience would be.

When you reflect on an entire year, you tend to recall the big moments first.

It was an easy decision to skip the first day of class and interview Olympic bronze medalist Kylie Masse. Sitting across from Kylie, who admits, “The most important thing for me is enjoying to swim,” she appears likely to be the happiest person in any room with her positive attitude and constant smile.

I also won’t forget the day that Kylie broke her own 50-metre backstroke Canadian and U SPORTS record in the preliminaries and then again that same night in the finals at the U SPORTS Swimming Championships. Nor will I forget the roar of the crowd that followed her in each race that she competed in over the three-day event.

There was something unique about the brisk fall weekends I spent at Back Campus covering the Varsity Blues field hockey team.

Writing about field hockey was a chance to take a break from covering football and soccer and attempt to write about a sport that I initially knew next to nothing about.

I stood next to parents who were cheering on their daughters, jotted quick notes to describe the fast-paced action, and overheard returning alumni converse about how their weekend was going. It was liberating to step outside of the somewhat isolating nature of a press box and into a setting where one didn’t exist.

During the first game I covered, a parent approached me as I sat in the bleachers and typed notes. He was curious about what I was doing. Like Simon, he thought it was great that I was writing about the game. For the length of our conversation on Blues athletics, I didn’t mind being distracted from the action in front of me.

The interviews I conducted are impossible to forget.

Julia Costanzo looks down the field against the Queen’s Gaels. PHOTO BY MARTIN BAZYL COURTESY OF THE VARSITY BLUES

It was incredible to listen to Blues women’s hockey head coach Vicky Sunohara reflect on her illustrious career and memories of winning two gold Olympic medals and hear Emily Ziraldo’s teammates, Julia Costanzo, Rachel Spogue, and Emily’s twin sister Hilary, describe the incredible person she is on and off the field.

After interviewing Blues second-year swimmers Rachel Rodé, Sarah Polley, Hannah Genich, and Sophie du Plessis, all of whom happened to be roommates and won a combined 19 medals at the 2018 OUA Championships, it was inconceivable not to dub them as the ‘Fantastic Four.’ And before speaking to Hannah, I would’ve never considered the idea of hanging medals on a bedroom curtain rod.

Then, there are the moments I experienced vicariously through the words of my section’s writers, like Kate Reeve’s engrossing narrative capturing the shared experience of novice and veterans rowers — not to mention coxswains — competing at the annual Brock Invitational Regatta from the start of their journey as they departed Toronto before sunrise.

The Sports section came full circle with Julia Costanzo’s reflection on her rookie season as a member of the Blues field hockey team. The year ended with Emily and Blues punter TJ Morton being awarded the inaugural The Varsity Athletes of the Year, as voted upon by the section’s contributors.

Julia’s personal essay, “Notes from the dark room,” in The Physical Issue of The Varsity Magazine was impossible to read without confronting how little is actually known about concussions. It’s also the type of sports writing I would have introduced to Emma as an example of why I want to write for The Varsity.

Julia’s writing speaks volumes about her own resilient spirit; her essay detailed the difficult experience she went through after suffering a concussion, but was later able to overcome — an attribute fitting for the outstanding athlete she is, but also reflective of the character displayed by her and fellow student athletes.

That’s the reason why I believe every U of T student should attend Blues games. Any writer who is passionate about sports, wants to learn more, or is maybe just interested in writing about people should take the opportunity to contribute to the The Varsity’s Sports section for the same reason.

I know it’s the most rewarding decision I’ve made so far at U of T.

Blues rowing achieve seven podium finishes at OUA Championships

Andrei Vovk captures silver and bronze in St. Catharines

Blues rowing achieve seven podium finishes at OUA Championships

On October 27 and 28, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues rowing team competed at the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Championships held at Henley Island. Already familiar with the course, the group quickly settled into their usual pre-race routines. Athletes huddled together out of the wind beneath U of T’s tent, posted right along the rocky shoreline, and watched their peers glide by. Although the forecast was grim, the weather held up throughout the weekend, producing only some minor wind and a touch of rain on Saturday. The atmosphere on the island was upbeat and hectic, with boats hanging overhead while crews jogged, skipped, and jumped around, doing anything to keep warm.

The Blues novice teams raced on Friday, arriving early to rig their boats and prepare for their morning races. Both the men and women qualified for the finals, which took place shortly after the preliminary heats.

The women were very satisfied with their fourth-place finish, while the men were glad to take home a bronze medal. Later in the afternoon the heats for the varsity athletes began, and different crews came and went quickly. The lightweights were careful with their food, as they would be weighed in the next day, but the heavyweight rowers happily downed bagels and peanut butter as they watched their teammates race. The novice rowers bused back to Toronto late that afternoon, while the rest stayed overnight in St. Catharines for their finals the next morning.

Relieved to wake up to relatively calm water, the athletes cycled through their races — many were in multiple boats and had to race several times. Although the regatta was dominated by rowing powerhouses Western University and Brock University, U of T ended the tournament with 141 points overall and several podium finishes. This is especially significant in light of the poor weather leading up to OUAs, which severely hampered the Blues’ ability to practice on the water. Nevertheless, the team performed solidly, taking home six medals.

Andrei Vovk, a longtime fixture on the Blues team, had a strong showing in the men’s lightweight 1x, finishing in 7:07.8 to net a silver. Vovk also took home a bronze from the men’s lightweight 2x category, joined by his partner William Sati, in a solid time of 6:43.26. The men’s heavyweight eight, a spectator favourite, also finished on the podium. The boat, composed of Simon Plenderleith, Terek Been, Chris Hill, Esteban Poveda Torres, Samuel Muise, Alex King, William Sati, and Jacob Koudys, captured third place with a time of 6:02.88.

The women’s eight came in fifth, but they are slotted to race together one last time this season at the Canadian University Rowing Championships in Burnaby. Megan Lewicki and Rachel Dick achieved a silver medal in the women’s lightweight 2 for their time of 7:56.3. The women’s heavyweight four of Lauren Richardson, Megan Kamachi, Kendra Wells, Robyn Loves and Jessie MacAlpine finished in third place at 7:23.39.

For a majority of Blues rowers, this was the final race of the season — and for a few graduating students, the last of their career altogether as Varsity Blues athletes. The rowing season itself is very intense, but also incredibly brief. Finishing on a strong note, the Blues rowers will now begin their winter training to prepare for open water in the spring.

Varsity Blues rowers perform at 2017 Brock Invitational Regatta

Rowers compete at famed Henley course, place first and second

Varsity Blues rowers perform at 2017 Brock Invitational Regatta

In the dim morning light, two fleets of athletes left Varsity Stadium on Saturday, October 14. One bus left at 4:45, the other at a much more reasonable 5:15 am — both headed to Henley Island, one of the most famous racing courses in Canada, to compete in the Brock Invitational Regatta.

Upon arrival, the team quickly unloaded the trailer, stacked high with slim boats, and began to re-rig the boats to be used the soonest. Around 7:00 am, it was time for the lightweight rowers to weigh in. Lightweight rowers must be below 72.5 kilograms for men and 59 kilograms for women.

Athletes stripped down to their racing gear, shedding layers of spandex and fleece, to be measured and stamped with their weight. Coxswains — diminutive but deceptively loud — were also weighed in. They must be over 50 kilograms for women’s boats and 55 kilograms for men’s. After the weighing-in, the races began in earnest.

The Blues’ first race of the day was the men’s lightweight double, which took off around 8:00 am. Things moved quickly from there, as athletes darted in and out of the tented U of T area while preparing for their races. Those who weren’t scheduled until later in the day studied together on tarps laid over the muddy ground, hunched over textbooks with subjects ranging from calculus to Middle Eastern politics. Others watched races unfold from the river banks, cheering for teammates as they zipped by. After their races, athletes carried their boats and oars back from the dock and huddled up together to debrief, usually with a bottle of water or a bagel in hand.

Most novice rowers had only really been rowing since the first week of September. For them, Brock was a milestone — they completed their first two-kilometre races, visited Henley for the first time, and caught their first crabs in Martindale Pond.

Highlights of the day included the Blues women’s team, slotted around 11:00 am, having a rough race due to technical issues but pushing through to the finish; the novice Blues men, who raced later in the afternoon, coming second overall to McGill University; and the best performance of the day — the women’s lightweight double team, who easily took first place in their race.

Brock was an important learning experience, a good way to measure progress, and an opportunity to prepare for the more important race coming up in two weeks: the OUA Championship, also held at Henley. After Brock, crews broke down their strategies and analyzed their performances, looking for ways to improve in time for the OUAs.

Hopefully, the Blues can build on this momentum going forward and perform well in the OUA Championship at the end of the month.