Canoe-Kayak Elite Amateur Sport

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Kayaker Toshka Besharah facing big changes as she aims for 2024 Paris Olympics

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Toshka Besharah. File photo

By Martin Cleary

The world is unfolding in two new directions for Toshka Besharah. But she has both of her arms wide open to embrace her next-level academic and athletic challenges.

In June, she graduated from Ashbury College as an honour-roll student and has stepped up this month to become a first-year biomedical student at the University of Ottawa.

Earlier this month, she wrapped up her paddling career as a junior kayaker in a successful manner at the world junior and U23 canoe championships. Now, Besharah, 18, is preparing to climb onto the next rung on the national and international kayaking ladder to compete in the U23 age category.

As the Rideau Canoe Club member makes the transition from junior to the intermediate U23 level, it’s time for an appropriate break to reflect on Besharah winning two world junior championship medals, learning an important lesson, and moving forward.

The women’s junior K1 200-metre final at the 2021 world junior and U23 championships in Portugal was over in less time than it takes to make a cup of coffee. But during the kayak-whirling sprint, Besharah had to confront an unusual, double false start in the race, a feeling of nausea and then complete joy.

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After achieving the goal of winning her 200-metre heat and earning the right to advance directly to the A final two days later, Besharah was ready for the final. She took an earlier bus to get to the race venue on time, had a pre-race paddle and rested in a chair for an hour, listening to music.

“I chatted the whole way to the dock with a coach, who was not my home coach,” Besharah said in a phone interview. “Tessa, a B.C. coach, was more of a mental support to help out, as there was no time to coach. I talked the whole way. I’m not usually super chatty.”

Back on the water, Besharah did a final, quick pre-race warmup and headed to the start line.

“I felt super, super ready,” added Besharah, who was positioned in lane five. “Then, we had a false start. They called lane four and then they called lane six. You get a warning and, if you do it again, you’re out.

“It didn’t help me because I felt like throwing up. I know everyone gets nervous before, but I had enough confidence in my start to be good. After my first stroke, my system went on adrenaline. Immediately, all the butterflies vanished and you go for the finish. And you go as fast as you can.”

Besharah certainly did that, winning the bronze medal with a personal-best time of 41.09 seconds. She was only 0.31 seconds behind winner Iuliia Babashinskaia of Russia and only trailed runner-up Laura Ujfalvi of Hungary by 0.21 seconds.

“I typically have a lower stroke rate compared to others,” she said. “It’s a power thing for me. That’s where I put my emphasis. I had a 1.7-second PB and, needless to say, I was happy.”

In the 200-metre final, it’s head down and power to the finish. But in her K1 500-metre heat she learned a valuable lesson – keep your eyes focused straight ahead, don’t check your competition.

“I looked to the side, took a quick glance and it cost me a direct entry into the final,” said Besharah, who was second in her heat (missing the important win by one second) and placed second in her semifinal to reach the A final.

“I must focus on the last 200 metres. For the last 50 to 70 metres, it’s head low and focus.”

Just the same, her fifth-place result in the 500-metre final was a great reward as she has “worked so hard in the 500, taken big steps and made leaps and bounds” over that distance.

Besharah won her first medal at the world junior championships in 2019 in Pitesti, Romania. And it happened in a most unusual manner.

With only two weeks of practice in the K4 boat, the Canadian team of Adriana Osende, Sarah Nagy, Rideau Canoe Club’s Maren Bradley and Besharah, the youngest on her team by two years, charged to the bronze medal in the women’s U18 500-metre race.

“It was a feat in itself,” Besharah said about that most unorthodox approach to the bronze-medal performance.

Besharah qualified for her two races at the 2021 world championships by winning both the 200- and 500-metre women’s U18 A finals at the Canadian championships on her home Rideau Canoe Club course.

“My goal was to win the 500 and 200, but I was more stressed for those races than at the worlds,” she said, adding the nationals were not only the Canadian championships, but also the national-team trials.

As Besharah continues her fall kayaking training and focusing on her university courses, she wants to “step back and go a little slower.” But she’s also anxiously looking into the future.

“The (2024) Paris Olympics would be amazing to make,” she indicated. “I’m excited to push for that. I’m excited to race the older girls.”

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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