TOKYO—With its towering athletes skimming gracefully over sun-dappled waters, rowing is a sport that is beautiful to behold.
But for all its photogenic sweetness, at its highest level it’s a contest in suffering. Witness the race plan of Canada’s Hillary Janssens and Caileigh Filmer as they brainstormed their approach to Thursday’s gold-medal final in the Olympic women’s pair.
“The only goal was to make it hurt,” Janssens told CBC. “And we did.”
If it wasn’t so much a tactic as a commitment to physical torture, it worked. Janssens and Filmer stormed to a commanding lead in the early going and led the race at the halfway mark of the 2,000-metre course. And while they were eventually passed by a dominant crew from New Zealand and a surging duo from Russia, the Canadians were able to endure the pain — not to mention the late challenge of a fourth-place crew from Great Britain — to finish third and deliver Canada’s moribund rowing program its first medal of the Olympic regatta.
“Uh, it hurt, yeah. We knew that we could do it, though,” said Janssens, speaking of the burn of the final 500 metres. “I don’t remember too much. All we could really see was the British … We just had to stay clean in our strokes, stay in the lane, and empty the tanks, because that’s what we train for.”
There was considerable pressure on Filmer and Janssens to deliver a podium performance. Until they took to the course Thursday morning, Canada had been shut out of the rowing medals at these Games, a not-so-promising beginning to the regatta. Considering Canada won a grand total of one medal at the Rio Olympics — a silver in the lightweight women’s double sculls from Lindsay Jennerich and Patricia Obee — the notion of a Tokyo shutout had to stoke fear in the hearts of Canada’s rowing brass.
Not that Canada didn’t have chances. The men’s pair of Conlin McCabe and Kai Lagerfeld staged an admirable charge down the stretch of their final Thursday. Crossing the halfway mark of the 2,000-metre course in sixth place in a six-boat race, the Canadians nearly caught the crew from Denmark for the bronze medal, missing out by less than a second.
And it’s not that Canada still doesn’t have chances, chief among them a women’s eight that has looked promising in the lead-up to Friday’s gold-medal race. But in the second straight Olympics that has seen Canada opt not to enter a men’s eight — an event in which the country has a legacy of considerable success — there’s yet again a lot being put on the performance of smaller boats like the women’s pair.
“I definitely felt a little bit of that. But I only wanted to live up to it,” said Janssens, speaking of the organizational need to produce hardware. “I felt like the whole team knew what we could do out there, and I wanted to make them proud … This was not just our hard work that got us this medal. This is everyone on the team who pushes us every day.”
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Filmer and Janssens had been to the top of a significant podium before, winning the world championships in 2018. But as much as winning gold at the world championships is an undeniably impressive achievement — especially since Filmer and Janssens achieved the feat by knocking off the formidable New Zealand duo of Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler in the process — the worlds aren’t the Olympics. Prendergast and Gowler, who won gold here Thursday, also won the world championship in the event in 2017 and 2019, and have dominated the World Cup circuit for years. And they loudly announced their presence here in the semifinal, setting a world-record time, albeit on a course that has been touched by a persistent tail wind all week.
For Janssens and Filmer, the trip to the medal ceremony came on the heels of an excruciating pandemic year of training in the wake of the Olympics postponement during which the duo said they battled a raft of injuries and mental-health challenges, not to mention the difficulty of training through yet another Canadian winter.
“Mentally, physically, we had a lot of hurdles,” Filmer said. “There were a lot of days we spent out of the boat for mental health or injuries — it was just one thing after another. But it was just believing in the process and believing in each other … that together we could get through anything.”
Said Janssens, holding back tears: “I guarantee you no one else has spent as much time on spin bikes this year than us. We have done our time with injuries. Mentally it’s really tough to believe, in the middle of winter, when you’re trying to build fitness and you don’t even know if it’ll pay off at the end. So to have that makes it worth it.”
Indeed, their bronze marked Canada’s first medal in the women’s pair since Marnie McBean and the late Kathleen Heddle claimed gold in the event at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
“That’s so special. I’m so glad to be able to do that,” Janssens said. “Especially in memory of Kathleen (who died at age 55 in January), thinking about her family. Obviously Marnie’s here (as chef de mission of Canada’s team). I hope Marnie watched that and is proud. Wow. Two of the most amazing Canadian athletes, and we’re so happy to continue their legacy.”
The legacy of Barcelona, of course, hearkens back to a boom time for Canada’s rowers, one the program has been hard-pressed to approach in more recent times. In enduring Thursday’s hurt, Janssens and Filmer could only hope they had set a tone for their compatriots to crib.
“Hopefully this inspires more of this,” Janssens said. “I think we have everything in place in Canada, and we just need to keep going. There’s nothing missing there.”
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk
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