By Chelsea Miya
It’s not even 6 a.m. and most of the city is still asleep. The stars are out. The streets are abandoned.
There’s no traffic, no horns — just the low hum of generators and the gentle lap of water against the shore.
The rowing team is just arriving; several bicycles and one moped pull into the tiny gravel lot just off the road on the eastern strip of the lake shore. There are a few bleachers and all of them are empty.
Even during the big competitions, the athletes tell me — “No one really knows about us.”
A big shame, considering last weekend they won the first two rowing gold medals in Ryerson’s history. And that was just the first competition of the year.
This year, the rowing team is giving the university something to talk about.
At the Western Open Regatta on Sept. 21, the team was victorious — twice. Phillippe Roy, a fourth-year industrial engineering student, and Matt Buie, a fourth-year architecture student, won a medal in the men’s varsity heavyweights double event. Allison Loosely, a second-year graphic communications management, added another gold in women’s lightweight varsity singles.
The team this year is shaping up to be the best squad in history. But without the direction of coach Dominic Kahn, the team would be floundering.
Three years ago, Kahn came up with a plan. Not only was he going to start a Ryerson rowing team — he was going to turn them into OUA champions. The coach started an afternoon program for beginner rowers who didn’t enjoy the morning practices and arranged for transportation to and from practice at the lake.
He just wanted to get people interested — and it worked. In fact, many of the team’s best rowers, including two of the gold medal winners, only took up the sport last year.
“We’re seeing virtual beginners winning gold medals,” Kahn says. “It’s really phenomenal.”
Fresh off the country’s Olympic rowing high where Canada scooped four medals, the popularity of the sport has been given a boost.
And the number of athletes coming out to Ryerson’s practices just keeps growing.
The sun’s not even out yet, but the team talks energetically as they hoist down the racing boats. They’re here every morning, seven days a week. It’s the best time of day to train, when the waters are at their calmest.
I’m in a double scull with one of the winners, Loosely, who’s going to teach me how to row. The boat is over 34 feet long and skinny. I cling to the sides, the bottom rocking under my feet as I get in. I ask her if she’s ever flipped a boat.
“My first time on a single-person boat I was like, ‘ahh, it’s eleven inches wide, I’m going to flip!’ I didn’t flip on my first day,” Loosley says.
“But I did on my second.”
Before I can start to panic we push off from the dock, and with a few powerful strokes, we’re off.
My hair whips across my face. I’m blown away by the speed. In seconds we’ve already left the shore far behind.
Patches of mist hang over the lake. Orange and purple rays are just peeping over the horizon.
The brilliant light spills out onto the smooth waters, which peel away from the side of the boat in graceful arcs.
I’m in awe. Loosley grins, pulling the oars back for another stroke. Her smile says it all.
This is why we row. “I had no idea,” I say. “I thought it would be like…”
“Like old school wooden rowboats,” she laughs. “Some old guy with a beer in his hand.”
But it’s not all tranquil.
“Whoever wins is whoever can take the most pain,” Loosely says. “When we’re competing we all have pretty much the same levels of rowing. In lightweight women’s we’re all the same size. So it’s not who’s stronger. It’s who can push themselves harder.”
So what’s her secret?
“One of my teammates gave me advice one time. He said, you know when you’re pulling and you feel like if you pull one more stroke you’re gonna die? Well, instead, just tell yourself that if you don’t pull hard you’re gonna die,” she says.
“Just keep pushing — win. No matter what.”
I try some strokes. The rush is incredible. Not to mention the workout. You can feel it all the way up your legs and shoulders, stomach — everything.
Loosely corrects my grip and posture, and nods approvingly.
“You’d make a great coxie,” she says.
It’s hard to believe only a year ago this gold medal winner was a total novice, just like me.
Loosely took up rowing last fall and loved it so much she dedicated the summer to training at the Bayside Rowing Club with fellow gold medal winners Buie and Roy.
“That’s what makes the difference,” she says.
“If you row in the summer with the same coach you’re going to row with in the fall, the same technique, same practices, just harder, harder and harder, every time.”
Kahn is confident the team will nab another gold at the Head of the Trent regatta this weekend. From there, it’s on to one of the most important competitions of the season — the Brock Invitational on Oct. 11 is like a prequel to the OUA finals.
The team hopes to finish in the top three.
It’s time to head back to shore.
Another boat pulls up as we reach the dock. One of the new teammates, first-year fashion design student Georgia Nogas, steps out and smiles. It was her first time rowing too.
It looks like Kahn’s plan for the future is working.
I ask her if she’ll be back tomorrow morning.
“I had three naps in class yesterday. Three real naps — like half an hour long,” Nogas says. “But is it worth it? Totally. You only have to get out there once to see why.”