By Martin Cleary
The lightweight has become a heavyweight.
As the COVID-19 pandemic moved in and shut down sports in March, 2020, Ottawa Rowing Club’s Josh King switched gears earlier than he expected, gained 40 pounds and became a 2021 Canadian Olympic alternate in the men’s four boat.
An accomplished lightweight oarsman (less than 160 pounds) representing Canada at the 2019 Pan-Am Games and the 2016 world championships, King is now concentrating on helping the men’s heavyweight eight crew qualify for the Summer Olympic Games in 2023 and then rowing a year later in the five-ring festival final in Paris.
But before he gets caught up in his various avenues of preparation for the 2022 national championships at the end of the month and starting to train for the 2023 season, King is exclusively focusing on his wedding.
The countdown reached T-minus one day on Friday.
King, 29, and Tiffany Rusch are scheduled to be married Saturday in a church ceremony and celebrate their new beginning during a reception appropriately enough in the Andy Binda Boathouse at the Ottawa Rowing Club, which is the oldest rowing club in Canada (founded, 1867).
Rusch and King met in London, ON., while she was studying nutrition at Brescia University College, which is part of Western University, and he was training with the national men’s lightweight rowing team.
A dietician with a passion for sports nutrition, Rusch was a lightweight fours and eights rower during her days at Brock University. King was a student-athlete at Trent for five years (2011-16) as well as rowing team captain and a member of the university rowing club’s executive in his final year. He joined the national team in 2016.
After a short honeymoon in British Columbia, they will drive to Victoria, where Rusch will resume her job as a dietician and King will return to the national men’s rowing training centre in Duncan, B.C.
At the recent world rowing championships in Racice, Czech Republic, King sat in the No. 2 seat in the men’s eight boat, when Canada placed fifth in the final. It was a bitter-sweet result for the national team in King’s eyes.
“It was a little disappointing how we finished,” said King, adding the Canadian boat won its semi-final heat against two of three eventual medallists, was the only boat in its heat to qualify automatically for the final and posted the fastest winning time in the two semifinals.
“But it was a good stepping stone as we only have been together for a few months. We were a relatively new eight. Overall, it was good, given our experience. Only two had rowed at the senior level and six were fresh. The coxie was in her first senior event.
“It looks good for our crew with a good winter of training.”
While Canada won its 2,000-metre heat in five minutes, 30.39 seconds ahead of The Netherlands, 5:31.26, and Australia, 5:33.50, the young national rowers couldn’t improve their speed in the final to keep pace with four other countries.
The Canadian men’s eight consisted of Curtis Ames of Calgary Rowing Club, Terek Been of Montreal Rowing Club, Jakub Buczek of St. Catharines Rowing Club, former Ottawa resident Will Crothers of Kingston Rowing Club, Ryan Clegg of Western University Rowing Club, Luke Gadsdon of Leander Boat Club, King, Peter Lancashire of Brentwood College and coxswain Laura Court of St. Catharines Rowing Club.
Great Britain earned the gold medal in 5:24.41, while The Netherlands took silver in 5:25.52 and Australia collected bronze in the six-boat final in 5:27.72. The United States finished fourth at 5:29.20, while Canada was fifth in 5:30.71.
Preparation for the worlds was spotty for Canada. The national team didn’t race World Cup No. 1 and missed the World Cup No. 2 final because many of its rowers, including King, tested positive for COVID-19 and were isolated for 2½ weeks in an Italian hotel. In World Cup No. 3, Canada was sixth in the final.
“We knew where everyone would be and it wasn’t a bad race overall (at worlds),” King added about the Canadian effort. “We were a little off the pace of the podium.”
That world championship result gave the men’s eight a good baseline result to work towards the Olympic qualifying race next year. Another top-five result will automatically qualify Canada for the Paris Olympics. There also will be a final Olympic qualifying race in the weeks before the Games.
The worlds also gave King a good understanding of where he is and how much more he has to do in his transition to being fully comfortable as a heavyweight rower.
“It all started when COVID struck,” King said about his desire to row with the heavyweights or in the open category. “I was planning to do that after the 2021 Olympics. But I decided to make the transition earlier.
“I moved home and set up a gym in my parents’ garage. I stopped all aerobic training and lifted weights four times a week, following a program from our strength coach Matt Davey. I grinded it out on the weights for five to six months.”
Being a high-performance athlete, King was given an exemption during the pandemic to train at his regular venue, which allowed him to return to the national training centre located in Victoria at the time.
Besides lifting weights for muscle development and weight gain, King also changed his eating habits.
“I ate as much protein as I could to gain body fat. I also had to get a new (clothes) wardrobe,” he joked.
“It was fairly difficult. There’s such a different style of training (for the eight) with long kilometres (15 to 20 at a time) on the water, slogging it out. It kept my brain busy.”
As he looks forward to a winter of training and a camp early in 2023 before the team selection seat racing in May, King feels more and more like a heavyweight rower.
“I still feel I’m catching up aerobically in my new body. But there’s consistent improvement with all the testing. I feel more confident in the boat with speed and aerobic power.”
After King made the 2021 Olympic team as a spare for the men’s four crew, he was named to the men’s eight team because of his high level of training last winter, working with his strength coach and maintaining his weight gain with the assistance of a dietician.
“I surprised myself a little,” King reflected. “But I like rowing because you’re always chasing the perfect stroke and getting better.”
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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 OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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