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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Ottawa Rowing Club’s Zak Lewis enjoying coaching development assignment with national team

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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic

Ottawa Rowing Club coach Zak Lewis. File photo

By Martin Cleary

Every time Ottawa Rowing Club head coach Zak Lewis tried to take a step ahead in his career development in the past 13 months, a stop sign would flash before his eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic has been mean.

Lewis has tried for the past year to get out to the West Coast and meet Canadian women’s Olympic coach Michelle Darville, who also is his informal mentor. But it has been too risky, especially being around potential Olympic athletes.

Last summer, he got the call to coach the Canadian U19 team for the Canada/USA/Mexico regatta, and the FISU world university rowing championships. But the pandemic overruled and the competitions were cancelled.

Rowing Canada came forward with another offer, but he was unable to travel to Vancouver Island to support the Olympic, world championship and U23 groups for this summer. He declined because of his Ottawa Rowing Club responsibilities.

Finally last month, all of the crew boats and oars lined up in Lewis’s favour and he headed to Duncan, B.C., where he could coach the national-team groups that needed the most support until he needed to return to Ottawa to open the club.

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When he arrived, he was expecting to get out on the water with the men’s and women’s Olympic rowers, but as his interim development coaching role evolved, he became more of a ‘rover’ coach.

Lewis has spent the majority of his time training the senior athletes who are not part of the Olympic program, and the U23 rowers, who are preparing for the world championships in Racice, Czech Republic.

“This year with all Canadian universities being virtual many of the top under-23 athletes don’t have a team training environment to be a part of,” Lewis wrote in an email interview.

“This created an opportunity for Rowing Canada to assemble this group months earlier than typical years and start to establish a high-performance environment for these individuals.

“This has brought a variety of rowers from across the country to Duncan to start training on the water (Quamichan Lake and Shawnigan Lake) and in the gym together well in advance of team selection in mid-May.

“In my time with the team, I’ve been doing a lot of hands-on coaching to help ease the load off some of the other coaches out here and have been doing a lot of equipment prep (blade setting, boat rigging, etc.)”

While Lewis sees his interim national-team assignment as “a development piece,” he has been keeping busy virtually with his Ottawa Rowing Club duties. “Juggling multiple responsibilities has always been a bit of a skill of mine,” he added.

Ottawa Rowing Club’s Josh King and Christine Roper and para rower Andrew Todd, a former club member, are training with the Olympic group.

Read more: Rower Josh King keeps pulling for the Olympics

Despite having missed a number of opportunities over the past year because of the pandemic, the current coaching assignment has been perfect for Lewis, whose Ottawa Rowing Club head coach job involves both coaching and administration.

“This is a great way for me to hone my technical skills in the sport and stay on top of the training trends and what our senior squad is doing, without compromising any of my responsibilities back home,” Lewis wrote.

“I love coaching at the ORC. The people are exceptional and the community is going to continue growing past COVID. Some day, I’d love to transition to a full-time, national-team coaching role.

“But for now, I still have lots to learn and lots to accomplish before I’m ready to move on from the Ottawa Rowing Club,” added Lewis, who is finishing his second year as head coach, after stints as club senior and U23 women’s coach.

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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