By Martin Cleary
Representing your country at a world championship is a goal for all high-performance athletes, but it can be a stressful experience.
Meeting qualifying standards, travelling to the site, facing unpredictable weather at times, nagging aches and pains and competing against unknown athletes with the same end-goal are the traditional stress points for a competitor.
And then there’s the unexpected.
Zoe and Abby Wojtyk were confronted with no paddles at one point, lost practice sessions and needed to adjust rented boats as they prepared for their junior races at last week’s world junior/U23 canoe kayak championships in the Dolomite Mountain town of Auronzo di Cadore, Italy.
But the Rideau Canoe Club sisters dealt with every surprising situation thrown at them and they each emerged as world champions and multiple medallists.
Zoe, 18, earned her gold medal in the women’s C1 (canoe solo) 5,000-metre race, which involved five portage segments. Abby, 16, paddled in sync with Rideau teammates Ruby Muhl and Julia Price as well as Elizabeth Desrosiers-McArthur of Lac Beauport to win the women’s C4 500-metre championship.
While they each collected their own gold medal, their sweetest moment at worlds came when they qualified for the women’s junior C2 500-metre final and won the bronze medal together.
Zoe finished with three medals as she also captured a bronze in the women’s C1 500 metres.
As the Canadian team flew from Ottawa to Munich to Venice before travelling by vehicles to Auronzo, the athletes, coaches and support staff quickly discovered their paddles, which were contained in eight large bags, were still at the Toronto airport.
Panic buttons were pushed in Canada and Italy, but Canoe Kayak Canada and Air Canada worked in unison to have the paddles delivered to the championship site by the parents of Canadian team athletes, who were travelling to the worlds.
“It was stressful,” Zoe said straightforwardly in a phone interview this week. “We had only two days to get settled and get our boats figured out.
“We lost a day of practice (with no paddles). It wasn’t the best feeling in the world, but we couldn’t control it. We were lucky to get our paddles.”
Abby agreed having no paddles two days before the mid-week start of the worlds was stressful, but she pulled a positive from that negative.
“It was a little stressful because we couldn’t practise,” she added. “But it was nice because since we couldn’t practise we got to explore the town.”
Missing a couple of practices didn’t affect the Wojtyk sisters and, in one case each, they had little or no training time for the races that became their golden experience.
“I only found out I was doing the 5K race two days before the race and I had no practice,” said Zoe, who has competed in the 5,000-metre race involving canoeing and portaging in the past.
But Zoe had a good start in the final and was in the top five early. She handled all five portages well, exiting the water and carrying her 14-kilogram canoe in one hand and her paddle in the other for about 100 metres before resuming her paddling.
“As I got tired, I slowed down, but we all got tired. It didn’t matter,” she explained. “The boat hurt my hand and it (hand) got more painful. The boat was uncomfortable to hold. Where I was holding, it was scratching me.”
After 31 minutes and 14.19 seconds of paddling and lugging her boat overland, Zoe won the gold medal by 70.4 seconds over Carlotta Loske of Germany.
“Ultimately, it came down to all the work I put in with my long practices and endurance (training),” said Zoe, who will attend Dalhousie University this fall and study general sciences. “I’ve grown a lot, improved my technique and improved my fitness to allow me to put down medal performances.”
Abby called her C4 500-metre victory with Muhl, Price and Desrosiers-McArthur “especially unexpected” as the four canoeists only had three practices together in the two days before the start of the championships. Muhl also was a double medallist, winning the C1 mixed relay over 5,000 metres with Nicholas Shirokov of Mississauga.
“I’m not sure how we did it. We all get along well and had chemistry. Everyone put in their best race. We lowered our expectations with less practice,” she said.
The Canadian boat raced in lane three, which was right beside the powerhouse Hungarians. It was a straight final with no heats or semifinals.
“We were next to Hungary and that was nice because they are normally fast,” she added. “It (the final) was exhausting. I thought we were in third position behind Hungary, but someone said we won. And I said: ‘No way.’
“We were all excited to put down our best race. We worked well together, had a good start and fell into our race pace.”
Canada won the C4 500-metre final in 1:51.90 and defeated runner-up Hungary by the narrowest of margins, 0.12 seconds.
Zoe said her gold-medal effort was “totally unexpected” as it came on the final day of the championship.
“It was the last day and I was drained because I was racing every day,” she explained. “I didn’t have much energy left.”
But what was most special for the Wojtyk sisters at worlds was when they competed together in the C2 boat over 500 metres. They were well prepared for that race as they had trained once a week in that boat and had participated in the Ontario and Canadian team trials.
“It was a fun boat to be in,” Zoe exclaimed. “On the line we were nervous. When we paddled, we’d go fast for each of us and not do it strictly for a medal. I felt we were fourth at 200 metres and I said: ‘Oh, oh, we got to go.’”
Abby and Zoe won their C2 500-metre heat and automatically qualified for the final. It meant they didn’t have to race a semifinal, but their fast time indicated they would be considered a medal candidate, which was another stress point.
“It’s nice to have experience as it’s important in C2 to be in sync,” Abby explained. “At the finish, I was exhausted. There was a bridge just past the finish line and I heard someone say ‘you got it.’”
That meant Abby and Zoe won the bronze medal, which wasn’t in their race plan.
“It really was a nice surprise. I didn’t think about a medal, but only to put down our best race,” said Abby, who will enter Grade 12 at Glebe Collegiate Institute in September.
By focusing on the present, the Wojtyk sisters were able to be a part of four of Canada’s six junior medals at the world championships.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 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 High Achievers “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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