Sport: Canoe-Kayak Sprint
Event: Women’s K-4 500 m
Local Club: Ottawa River & Rideau Canoe Club
By Dan Plouffe
A lot has changed for Maddy Schmidt since her earliest paddling strokes at the Ottawa River Canoe Club, but on the morning she clinched her ticket to the Tokyo Olympic Games, the 25-year-old was brought right back to the days when “we were just kids playing all the time out there on the water in our canoes.”
Fast-forward from the time when her Olympic dream was born to March 12 when Schmidt’s “very cohesive team” just needed to win one more K-4 (four-person kayak) 500-metre race to earn their nomination to the Canadian Olympic team, and “we just wanted to go out and have fun,” recounts Schmidt, in similar fashion to her 8-year-old self.
The playlist developed alongside mates Alanna Bray-Lougheed, Andréanne Langlois and Michelle Russell – featuring classic pump-up jams like Lose Yourself by Eminem and Roar by Katy Perry – was key to keeping the mood light in the lead-up to the big moment.
Picture “four 20-something-year-old girls singing really badly in a van,” details Schmidt, who “couldn’t stop smiling the whole week (of the trials) because I think we knew what we were capable of.”
There was another element that brought Schmidt back to her early days on the Ottawa River near Dunrobin. Usually Canada’s preseason team selections take place in the southern U.S., but with COVID border closures/quarantine requirements, the races had to be held on Canadian water in winter.
“I definitely have a weird love for adverse conditions,” signals Schmidt. “The Ottawa River – that body of water can get so bumpy, so when it gets bumpy on any lake, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, this is home.’”
Schmidt and fellow Canadian Olympic hopefuls trained throughout the winter in a Canoe-Kayak Canada-organized bubble on Shawnigan Lake, B.C. before moving over to Burnaby for the trials.
“There was obviously a little bit more on the line with Olympic qualification, but (the environment) felt so similar,” indicates Schmidt, noting it was the same group of paddlers and coaches together as every day for months.
With no spectators or cheering, the moment when her crew crossed the finish line with a comfortable 2.5-second win to secure their Olympic berth “felt fairly anticlimactic.”
“I have always visualized or tried to imagine what it would be like to cross the line and qualify for the Olympics,” Schmidt reflects. “And I always pictured crossing the line and like being overwhelmed with joy and excitement and then just going to hug my family – my mom and dad and brother – and having them there to see me, and kind of feel the joy with me, because obviously they’ve been with me from start to finish through this whole journey.
“And I feel like when I crossed the line, it was a moment of a little bit of disbelief, like, ‘we just did this – this is what we’ve been working on for so long,’ but there was not a big emotional reaction. The excitement of it definitely was lacking.”
Schmidt puts a positive spin on it though: it was easy to reorient her energy to the bigger races ahead since “we want to do some damage at the Olympics.”
Heartbreaking 2016 Olympic miss
Looking at the bright side is just what Schmidt did 5 years earlier when she came agonizingly close to earning a Rio 2016 Olympic berth, losing a head-to-head race for Canada’s lone K-2 entry alongside Russell.
“When I look back at it now, the 2016 selection, I think of how young I was, like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ And just so wide-eyed,” highlights Schmidt, who represents the Rideau Canoe Club, her second paddling home. “Obviously I was brokenhearted when the last star didn’t line up. But I think it was such a good learning experience to go through.”
Schmidt was able to turn the page pretty quickly on the devastating moment and focus on the road ahead.
“I’m somebody that just loves to train,” underlines the Dartmouth, N.S.-based athlete. “Maybe it’s a little bit of masochistic tendencies. But I love to push myself and I love to work hard. And I think I just love the daily routine of getting up and and working out and getting stronger. And seeing the incremental progression day after day, and working really hard for something and getting that tunnel vision and the attention to detail in training.
“It’s just what I’ve done for so much of my life that I’ve just fallen in love with the process of it. And being outside, having this opportunity to be outside on lakes all across the country – it’s such a privilege.”
When the Olympics got postponed from 2020, Schmidt again thought: “Great, another year to train and get better.”
Paddling in the freezing cold all winter in Canada? Just a great way to harden her resolve, she says.
“It was such an adventure, honestly,” smiles Schmidt. “We’ve paddled through everything.”
The Woodroffe High School grad remembers one day where a “polar vortex” came and dumped a couple feet of snow while they were out on the water.
“There was a layer of slush that covered the whole lake because it came down so fast,” Schmidt recounts. “I mean, it was obviously really slow paddling through slush, but it was actually pretty cool to paddle through it.
“And we got hit by a freak hailstorm one day, and the waves were coming up and hitting us in the face.”
There was another cold and rainy day where Schmidt wondered if she’d lose her arms because the raindrops were starting to freeze to her.
“Now, there were also days that it was like glassy calm and beautiful and the sun was shining. But it was generally just like cold and gray,” she adds. “The mental toughness that we developed on Shawnigan Lake was incredible. Like, we are a tough group of athletes, for sure, to have pushed through what we did.”
And the reward, of course, was worth the pain, Schmidt underlines.
“When I was a kid, I would dream about the Olympics. It’s something I would always say I wanted to do, and I’d say that I was gonna do it. And it was never a doubt – this is my goal, and I was very vocal about it,” signals the 2013 world junior bronze medallist. “I think as I got closer and closer and closer, and the more real it got, the less daunting it became.”
When Schmidt saw her peers make it to the last Olympics, she knew it was well within her reach.
“I’m so grateful to be in this position, but I’m also not surprised,” highlights Schmidt, who’s hoping her boyfriend will earn an Olympic berth as well for Australia (the couple maintain a video blog on their journey).
“It’s something I’ve been dreaming of my whole life,” she adds. “To see it all unfold, I mean, it just shows that hard work does pay off and dreams do come true.”
MADDY SCHMIDT’S OLYMPIC COMPETITION SCHEDULE: