Canoe-Kayak Community Clubs Elite Amateur Sport

RBC Training Ground national finalist Matthew O’Neill turns canoe hobby into Olympic dream

By Adamo Marinelli

Matthew O’Neill’s canoe took him all over the place this year – to the Senior World Championships in Halifax, to the Canada Summer Games in Niagara, to the Under-23 World Championships in Hungary, among many others – but he was able to leave his boat in storage for the latest stop in his paddling journey.

Matt O’Neill. File photo

After his whirlwind season of travel, O’Neill had a very short trip over to the EY Centre for physical testing at the Oct. 22 RBC Training Ground national finals for Canada’s top-100 young athletes who’ve shown Olympic potential.

“It was a great experience to see everyone competing and doing the best they can,” recounted the 20-year-old who took up paddling a decade ago just downstream at the Rideau Canoe Club.

Whether he’s training, competing, or coaching, most of O’Neill’s youth and young adult life has been spent at the RCC, which he calls his second home. His parents weren’t really into sports, but luckily for O’Neill, the storied club on the Rideau River was close to home.

At age 11, he attended a canoe kids camp for a week, and liked it so much that he kept going back for the rest of the summer. O’Neill credits the supportive environment at the club, his fantastic coaches who mentored him and supported him no matter what, his competitive but kind teammates, and his brother, for fuelling his success in canoeing.

O’Neill is very close with his family, especially his older brother Conor, who paved the way for his entry into the sport and lit a competitive fire inside of him.

“I think Conor’s success showed Matthew it was possible to accomplish a lot when you work hard,” highlighted Rideau Canoe Club head coach Cheyanne Farquharson. “Matthew was a confident kid. He believed in himself and he had faith that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.

“He’s always been really determined – ever since he first started paddling, he wanted to train and work really hard. He always sets very high goals for himself and he’s managed to accomplish a lot of them.”

A big breakthrough for O’Neill came in 2019 when he captured two medals in his second appearance at the international Olympic Hopes regatta, having recovered from a bout of mononucleosis that hampered his previous season.

“He came out the other side of it a much more mature athlete,” Farquharson reflected.

O’Neill has now firmly established himself as one of Canada’s top young paddlers, highlighted by his selection to the 2022 senior worlds team and a Canada Summer Games where he won medals in all six of his events (one gold, four silver and one bronze).

The 6’4″ paddler feels that reaching the Olympics remains a bit of a long shot because so few athletes are sent to compete in canoe events, but he says it’s one of his lifelong dreams and he’s determined to do everything he can to get there.

A very helpful step in O’Neill’s quest could come from attending the national final for RBC Training Ground, which is billed as “a nation-wide talent identification program dedicated to finding and funding Canada’s future Olympians.”

The initiative counts piles of notable alumni including the likes of Olympic champions Kelsey Mitchell (cycling), Penny Oleksiak (swimming) and Justin Kripps (bobsleigh).

Ottawa has made its mark with Training Ground too. Last year, seven local athletes were among the 30 selected as RBC Future Olympians from the national final, including five paddlers.

“There are definitely a lot of other canoe-kayak athletes that are RBC Training Ground athletes,” O’Neill noted. “I see the opportunities they got from this and I want to have the same opportunities.”

Ottawa’s Zoe Wojtyk at the May 1 RBC Training Ground regional qualifier in Ottawa. Photo: Spencer John Colby

Also taking part in the event at the EY Centre were RCC sisters Zoe and Abby Wojtyk, along with Ottawa track sprinters Melchisedek Baptiste and Ifeoluwa Adewoye and speed skaters Matthew Freitag (short-track) and Brielle Durham (long-track).

The 100 best athletes identified from regional events held earlier this year across Canada were brought together in Ottawa for speed, strength, power and endurance tests. National sports organizations are now reviewing the results and will select up to 30 athletes with Olympic potential for funding and further developmental opportunities.

The final list of top athletes will be released on Dec. 5 during a nationally-televised documentary on TSN.

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