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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Riley Richardson leaving basketball to pursue Olympic dream in rowing

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

Riley Richardson. Photo provided

By Martin Cleary

OLYMPIC PROSPECTS (Part 3 of 8): On the first Saturday in February, 2020, the spirited Riley Richardson discovered she had a basketball-free weekend.

Perfect time for a break? Not really. Perfect time to explore her athletic talents.

The dynamic Ottawa youth basketball player discovered that RBC Training Ground was making its one and only stop in Ottawa that day and her passion for sport compelled her to test her limits and see where she stood.

The sixth annual RBC Training Ground, which started January, 2020, and delayed announcing its Top 30 athletes until earlier this month because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is “a nation-wide talent identification program dedicated to finding and funding Canada’s future Olympians.”

Recruiters from 10 national sport governing bodies watched more than 4,000 athletes undergo testing that could spring them to a national-team berth and a future Olympic Games.

Read More: Seven Ottawa area athletes named RBC Future Olympians

When Richardson walked into the University of Ottawa’s Montpetit Hall for testing, she was there no more than five minutes before she was approached by two coaches from Rowing Canada. The testing, which focused on core speed, strength, power and endurance, hadn’t even started and Richardson was immediately being approached and asked to consider switching to rowing.

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The RBC Training Ground puts athletes through five exercise tests to show their potential. Based on their results, coaches from bobsleigh/skeleton, boxing, nordic combined, ski jumping, speed skating, freestyle skiing, cycling, rowing, rugby and canoe-kayak approach athletes that may be suitable for their sport.

If an athlete selects a certain sport, sport-specific testing is conducted and the athlete is introduced to their new athletic pathway. The national sport associations then nominated athletes for the RBC Training Ground Top 100. Those athletes were tested one more time in the national finals, which were held in November in six different cities because of the pandemic. The Top 30 were named earlier this month to receive funding and a two-year support package to start their push towards a future Olympic Games.

“It was funny. My one weekend off and I really wanted to go to compare myself to the top elite athletes in Ottawa,” said Richardson, a six-foot, two-inch forward with the Ottawa Elite basketball program and a student-athlete at the Capital Courts Academy. “I walked into the gym and two coaches came up to me. They said you need to try rowing.”

The two rowing coaches knew a potential rower when they saw her. Richardson is tall with long legs and arms, which make her an ideal candidate to give the water sport a test drive. Being tall, she has a mechanical advantage to produce more power in her stroke and more water coverage in her oar(s).

After she completed her RBC Training Ground testing, she was recruited by coaches in rowing, rugby and speed skating, who all believed Richardson could fit into their sport and make a difference down the road.

Still loving to play basketball, Richardson, 17, elected to explore the possibility of becoming a rower. Despite having an American university basketball scholarship offer, she is in the middle of deciding what university to attend in the United States to pursue her academics and her new interest in rowing.

Richardson began training with the University of Ottawa rowing team and the athletes at the Ottawa Rowing Club. Her early days in a single boat were memorable, but got better.

“The first time I was on the water in a single, I totally loved my sport,” she added. “But the single was tippy. I went for a swim… tipped three times. My dad and coach were in a boat following me. I got a feel for the water. It was hilarious. I went in a boat and wondered: ‘Why am I moving the wrong way (going backwards)?’”

Now, Richardson, who also did some boat hopping by rowing in an eight, quad, pair, etc., is moving forward quickly, while still going backwards. She was named one of the Top 30 athletes in the RBC Training Ground’s Class of 2022 last week and will receive funding as a developmental athlete and full national-team support for a two-year period as she aims to become a future Olympian. She was one of seven Ottawa and area athletes placed in the Top 30, the most from any Canadian city.

“I was so surprised. Wow. This is an amazing opportunity. I’m so grateful for what RBC has done,” explained Richardson, who had her first series of races in 2021 and showed her technical skills, enthusiasm and dedication have brought her in a positive place. “This has made my Olympic dream for rowing even more possible. This is a great start.”

At the 2021 Head of the Rideau regatta, she won the women’s junior singles race with intensity and joy over the twisty, turny five-kilometre Rideau Canal course. She also placed sixth in the women’s U19 singles at the Head of the Trent regatta. At her first Canadian championships in Victoria, she placed 15th overall (based on time) in the women’s open singles and was the 10th-ranked junior.

Richardson only recently decided rowing would be her prime sport. She intends to stay with basketball until the end of her seasons with the Capital Courts Academy, which is based at Cairine Wilson Secondary School, and Ottawa Elite.

“I’m not thinking about leaving basketball. When basketball shut down (because of the pandemic), I was at home working out. It was a perfect time to try something new,” Richardson explained.

“Everyone was antsy to do something. Rowing was the perfect thing for me. This is super cool and I can do both as long as I can.”

After Richardson had her first on-water experiences in late August, 2020, Rowing Canada provided her with an ERG machine to practise her rowing indoors. She also was part of Row Ontario’s NextGen program.

“Overall, the rowing community is so welcoming. We’re all up at 4 a.m., and everyone is so happy. I’m grateful to be there and grateful to be a part of it,” said Richardson, who cycled 10 kilometres to the club each morning for fall training and then returned home for school.

“It was a really tough decision (selecting rowing over basketball). Up to one month ago, I wasn’t sure what way to go. Basketball is an amazing sport, but rowing is exciting for my next chapter. All of these opportunities – RBC, university and an Olympic dream excite me.”

While rowing is her main athletic focus, academics remain her No. 1 priority. It hasn’t always been easy for Richardson, who has dyslexia, but she has created her own path to be successful. She said her mid-term average was 3.9 out of 4.0.

“The last few years, I’ve learned how my brain works,” she said. “I’ve definitely worked my butt off. I haven’t had any professional help, but I’ve really worked my tail off. I figured out a way. I have a good teacher community. If I have questions, I can go in at lunch or before or after school.

“I love my brain and how it works.”

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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