By Martin Cleary
This is how we traditionally view rowing.
In narrow boats for one, two, four or eight rowers and sometimes coxswains, fit athletes clutching one or two oars catch the water, drive through it, finish and recover in well rehearsed synchronization.
The shells or sculls slice quietly through the water with heart-racing pace, purpose and precision to the sounds of distant cheering.
By the finish line, the exhausted rowers fall back in the boat, gasping for air and, on occasion, end up in the water.
Now, off-season rowing looks a little different, when waterways are off limits because of snowy and icy winter weather.
So, welcome instead to indoor rowing, epicentre Mississauga, as Canada hosted the World Rowing Indoor Championships for the first time ever last weekend.
There was excitement and energy in the air as rowers were paraded into the 5,400-seat Paramount Fine Foods Centre to the sounds of upbeat music. Announcers were constantly talking. Spectators cheered and supported their favourite rowers, who are travelling 2,000 metres without ever leaving their designated Concept 2 rowing erg machine stations.
The world championships, which doubled as the 40th Canadian national championships, attracted nine Ottawa Rowing Club members, one from the Rideau Canoe Club and one other Ottawa entrant. They drew in-person and virtual entries from every-day rowers to Olympians to a world record-setting 91-year-old grandmother.
“It was held in a giant OHL (Ontario Hockey League major junior A) arena. It was a different experience,” said Ottawa Rowing Club’s masters athlete Melanie Coulson, who competed in the women’s 50-54 age class against 18 other rowers around her or around the world.
“They dimmed the lights and the announcer said: ‘Please welcome to the floor the women’s 50-54 class.’ I was the first one out and we marched down a strip to find our ergs. We got set up in a few minutes … took some practice strokes.”
There was a countdown before the rowers sprung into action, pulling the cord, sliding back and forth on their movable seats and repeating this about a couple hundred times to complete 2,000 metres.
“It was exciting. I was emotional. It’s a big deal,” added Coulson, who had a short, but enjoyable introduction to rowing in the late 1990s, when she was a master’s student at Carleton University in journalism and mass communications.
Coulson, who returned to rowing in 2018 after a 20-year break, was ready to compete in her first World Rowing Indoor Championships, after qualifying virtually at the 2022 Canadian championships and training 18 months in her basement.
She prepared for the worlds by attending the Quebec championships in Lachine, finished second in the women’s 50-plus race and formed a friendship with winner Audrey Ferec of Quebec. They met again at worlds.
“After doing (2022) Canadians virtually, I wanted to do a live event. They weren’t holding a separate Canadians (in 2023) because they were playing host to the worlds,” Coulson noted. “I qualified last year to go to worlds in Toronto, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go.”
But then she listened to her inner voice.
“It’s the worlds. It would be neat to race. I was so glad to do it,” said Coulson, who works in the communications industry. “When it’s in your backyard, you have to go.”
Coulson’s inaugural world championship consisted of two races and supporting her son Euan, who competed in the boys’ 17-18 age category and was one of seven junior rowers, one junior paddler and one multiple-event rower from Ottawa.
As her women’s 50-54 2,000-metre race approached, Coulson “didn’t want to lose her head” and start too quickly. As it turned out, she started a little slower than she liked, but gradually increased her stroke rate at each of the four 500-metre time intervals – 30 strokes per minute for the first 500 metres, 32 for second 500, 33 for the third 500 and fought back with 34 for the final 500.
Coulson finished seventh overall and was the second Canadian in seven minutes, 41.2 seconds, but missed her goal of going under 7:30. Ferec was fifth in 7:38.8.
“I (wanted) to stay calm and focused and not let the adrenaline get to me. Going into worlds, I was aiming for 7:30. That was my gold medal. But halfway through my legs died. 7:41 is not my worst, but I was competing on the world stage.”
Finland’s Marika Laaksonen had a stroke rate of 31 per minute for each of the first three 500 legs, but cranked it up to 35 for her finishing kick to post the fastest women’s 50-54 time of 7:26.4.
On the second and final day of competition, Coulson entered the 500-metre race and placed eighth in 1:44.5. Norway’s Benita Clausen was first in 1:34.6, while Laaksonen took third in 1:38.1.
Coulson also experienced her first worlds with her son Euan, an Ontario Next Generation program rower with the Ottawa Rowing Club.
Euan finished 16th overall and was the sixth Canadian in the boys’ 17-18 race over 2,000 metres in 6:39.0. There were 66 finishers. He steadily increased his stroke rate throughout the race from 30 to 32 in the middle and 33 for the final 500 metres.
“It was amazing,” Melanie Coulson said about participating in worlds with Euan. “I have to tell you I was nervous in my event, but as a parent, it’s a whole different dynamic. All day long, I tried to be calm for him. Internally, it’s hard.”
Euan, who won his age class at the Quebec championships with a debut time of 6:41, knew the competition would be tough and he simply wanted to post his fastest time and not worry about his final standing.
“It was a bit tough because there was a lot going on [around me],” the Grade 12 Earl of March Secondary School student said about his racing environment. “The announcer was talking about random stuff and people were cheering the other racers. But halfway through, I got used to it.
“You weren’t allowed to use headphones. I just concentrated and stared at the numbers on my (erg machine) screen. I think I could have done better and made a personal-best time. But it was a good effort.”
Here are the results from other Ottawa athletes:
· Girls’ U17: Eden Ramunas (Ottawa Rowing Club) – 15th in 7:43.9, Caroline Anderson (Rideau Canoe Club) – 16th in 7:46.0, Samaya Khosla (Ottawa Rowing Club) – 17th in 7:46.7, and Ray Purkis (Ottawa Rowing Club) – 34th in 8:02.8.
· Girls’ 17-18: Maia Hembruff (Ottawa Rowing Club) – 17th in 7:39.4.
· Boys’ U17: Aidan Anderson (Ottawa Rowing Club) – 28th in 7:02.8, and Anton Mikhailov (Ottawa Rowing Club) – 75th in 7:46.0.
· Men’s Versa Challenge: Jordan Monnick (Ottawa) – four different events, sixth place with 31 points.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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