Elite Amateur Sport Rowing

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Rower Rachel Weber wins first Royal Canadian Henley title, after world championship debut

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By Martin Cleary

As Rachel Weber was nearing the end of Grade 10 at Glebe Collegiate Institute, she was introduced to the sport of rowing during a phys-ed class.

A friend of hers was already in a rowing program. Weber thought about it and said: “Fine, I’ll join, too.”

“I had no summer sport. I played ringette in the winter. It was something to do in the summer,” she reasoned.

And not just one or two summers.

For the past seven years, her summers, and all four seasons for that matter, have been filled with rowing workouts, on-water training, travel and competitions with the Ottawa Rowing Club and the Western University Mustangs’ program.

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As she has committed to rowing year after year, she has seen progress every season, especially this summer.

A fourth-year medical science student-athlete at Western and a two-time Academic All-Canadian, Weber, 20, represented Canada at the 2023 world U23 championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria and followed that by winning her first title at the 138th Royal Canadian Henley rowing regatta last weekend in St. Catharines, ON.

Here’s an interesting fact about the Henley. Only the winner of a final receives recognition (a trophy and a plaque). For the past two years, Weber has combined for two second-place, two third-place, one fourth-place and one fifth-place results, but no Henley glory.

All that changed last Sunday. But by representing Canada at a world championship this year, she was restricted to competing in only one race at Henley. And she made the most of it.

Weber and Gabrielle Yarema teamed to win the women’s championship pair, smoothly gliding over the 2,000-metre course in seven minutes and 35.84 seconds and finishing ahead of Oklahoma and the University of British Columbia by almost six and 12 seconds respectively. They won the Suzanne and James Schaab Trophy.

“I’ve always come close, but never close enough,” Weber said in a phone interview on Thursday.

She used her past Henley results as a form of motivation to see if she could win a coveted Henley race and the cherished hardware.

“I was going in for fun. I missed racing. I was bored. I wanted to go in and have a fun race,” she added, taking a low-key approach to the one-and-done race. “If something happened, it would be fun. It didn’t really matter.”

Ottawa Rowing Club product Rachel Weber (left) and Gabrielle Yarema were champions in the women’s pair at the 2023 Royal Canadian Henley. Photo: Ed Fournier / Ottawa Rowing Club

When she won the women’s championship pair race with Yarema, Weber was thrilled with the result.

“It was something I’ve wanted for a long time,” she explained. “Every year, I’d go to Henley thinking maybe this will be my year, maybe this will be my year.”

This actually turned out to be her year and it came several weeks after a strong showing at her world championship debut in the U23 classification in Plovdiv.

After various seat and selection races in May, Rowing Canada assigned Weber and Sally Jones of Vancouver to the women’s pair boat and they came excruciatingly close to making the A final (top six crews). Instead, they competed in the B final, won the race by more than 8.19 seconds and placed seventh overall.

Weber and Jones were in contention to qualify for the A final in both of their earlier races, but were edged as they pulled to the finish.

A top-two result in their heat would have sent Weber and Jones directly to the A final, but they stopped 0.17 seconds behind Spain to place third in 7:29.36. In the repechage race, where they also needed a top-two result to get to the championship race, Weber and Jones were in second place with 500 metres remaining and had a 3.31-second advantage on Austria, but dropped to third at the finish in 7:32.76.

In the B final, Weber and Jones posted their best time of 7:22.73, which earned them seventh overall. It’s difficult to compare times because races are held at different times and under varying weather conditions, but their time would have put them fourth in the A final.

“We had some good races, but unfortunately bad endings. It’s not what we came to do,” Weber said.

“The heat race was our first race internationally as we had never been to worlds before. We didn’t know how we’d stack up. It was exciting, but we didn’t know what was going to happen. The coaches just told us to have a good race.”

They were third for the majority of their heat and pressed for second place coming to the finish.

“With 500 metres left, Sally said we have to go. We gave it our all. That (top two) was our goal, but (Spain) was just ahead and got us by 0.2 seconds,” Weber explained.

In the repechage, Weber and Jones were on course to qualify for the final as they were second for almost the entire race. But a huge finish by Austria dropped Canada to third place and the B final.

Despite being relegated to the secondary final, Weber and Jones maintained a positive attitude. They finished their first world championship with a bang – a solid time, a satisfying win and impressive overall result.

“It was really cool to see all the different countries instead of the clubs,” Weber said. “It was cool to have Canada on our unis (uniforms) and hear Canada called at the start. It was really crazy and the racing was super competitive.”

And hot as well as the race day temperatures in Plovdiv hit 40°C.

But the Canadian team was prepared for the heat, staging five different training sessions under stifling heat conditions in pre-world training. In the end, Canada won three bronze medals at the world U23 championships – women’s lightweight single, the women’s eight and men’s lightweight quad.

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 martincleary51@gmail.com and on Twitter @martincleary.

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