When the Canadian women’s eight rowing team takes to the water in Serbia at the world championships this week for the opportunity to qualify a boat for its Olympic title defence, the squad will look markedly different from the one that crossed the finish line first in Tokyo.
Two years removed from Canada’s first Olympic gold medal in the women’s eight since 1992, only three rowers — Toronto’s Sydney Payne, Avalon Wasteneys of Campbell River, B.C., and Calgary’s Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski — will return to a crew in Belgrade looking to be among five countries that can qualify in the women’s eight for the Paris Games next summer.
The final of the women’s eight begins at 8:10 a.m. on Sept. 10, with CBC Sports streaming the worlds live from Sept. 7-10.
Despite the turnover, Canada will have the luxury of returning the commanding voice of coxswain Kristen Kit of St. Catharines, Ont., who feels fortunate to be able to rely on her three other returnees in an expedited three-year quadrennial.
“There’s a lot of conversation that’s still happening about how we get an Olympic team up to speed in three years,” said Kit to CBC Sports, who says she would have retired after Tokyo had her employer, RBC in Ontario, not allowed her to work remotely from B.C., to still be able to train with the rowing team.
“It really comes down to athlete retention … the crews that have had very few retirements from Tokyo seem to be the ones that are going really fast right now.”
Payne, 25, Wasteneys, 25, and Gruchalla-Wesierski, 32, have quickly had to step into a leadership role in the lead-up to the Paris Olympics, similar to the roles held by Lisa Roman, Susanne Grainger and Christine Roman at the Tokyo Olympics after competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
“[The returning 2016 Olympic women’s eight rowers] were able to help [the new members of that team] understand what was going to happen at the Olympics and what that experience would be like going through the qualifiers, and they were able to do that for us for the Tokyo Games,” Payne told CBC Sports.
“Hopefully the three of us, plus Kristen, are able to help the teammates that haven’t been to the Olympic qualifiers understand the experience a bit more before they get there so that they feel a little bit more comfortable in the crazy, high-stress environment that we’re about to enter into.”
Mixing and matching
The other members of the women’s eight team that Canada has sent to Serbia comprises of Morgan Rosts of Jordan, Ont., Cassidy Deane of Whistler, B.C., Kirsten Edwards of Port Moody, B.C., Alexis Cronk of London, Ont., and Jessica Sevick of Strathmore, Alta.
The first major international event with the senior team for the mid-20s group of Deane, Cronk and Edwards was in June of 2022 at the World Rowing Cup II in Poland in the women’s four event, and the three didn’t participate on the women’s eight team until winning silver at the World Rowing Cup III in Switzerland the next month — Rosts’ first foray with the squad at the senior level.
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The Canadians finished 2nd in the women’s eight final during the 3rd day of the World Rowing Cup from Lucerne, Switzerland.
The first major international event for Sevick, 34, was the women’s double sculls event at the Olympics, alongside Gabrielle Smith of Unionville, Ont., where the Canadian duo finished sixth.
“Racing as a sweeper, I think, was tough,” said Smith, who notes the difference between racing with two oars in sculling versus racing with one in sweeping. “It was a test for my confidence, because I’ve spent 10 years perfecting a craft, and then less than a year trying to figure out how sweeping works.
“I was nervous that I was going to let my teammates down by just getting caught up in the minutiae of the stroke. But luckily, it all for the most part panned out.”
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The Canadian crew held off the Americans to take home bronze in Racice, Czech Republic.
While transitioning from sculling to sweeping as Smith and Sevick did presents its own challenges, the notion of mixing different athletes together across different events is not something that is rare for the team, with the women’s sweep group — the eights, fours and pairs — training together.
“It feels like every single practice we’re changing boats,” said Payne, who has competed internationally in the eights, fours and pairs. “We’re rarely in the same lineup more than three [times] in a row … You have the confidence that you’ll probably be able to make any group of people work and get across the line.”
Olympic qualifier ‘bloodbath’
The women’s eight is no doubt the star of the show for the Canadian rowing team in the run-up to Paris, accounting for all three medals won by Canadians at either the World Cup or world championships since reaching the top of the mountain at the Tokyo Olympics.
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Canada finished less than a second back of the winners for a podium spot at the world cup event in Switzerland.
But before setting their eyes on Paris, they’ll have to worry about facing all of the A-teams for the best rowing nations in the world for the first time since the Olympics, including four of the five nations that contended with Canada in the women’s eight Olympic final — the U.S., Australia, Romania and the bronze-medal winning Chinese team.
Should the women’s eight not qualify for the Olympics on Sept. 10, they will get another opportunity to grab one of two spots at the Final Qualification Regatta in Switzerland in May.
Canada will be competing in 10 Olympic qualifying events in Belgrade, which includes Tokyo bronze medallist Caleigh Filmer and her partner Maya Meschkuleit in the women’s coxless pair.