After suffering childhood brain injury, Canadian rower rebounds to become Olympian

Jessica Sevick from Strathmore, Alta., had just suffered a severe brain injury during a luge training run at Calgary's Olympic Park.

Albertan Jessica Sevick raced to a second-place finish in Tokyo on Friday

Jessica Sevick and Gabrielle Smith, of Canada, competes in the women's double sculls at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (Darron Cummings/The Associated Press)

Jessica Sevick's family was told she might not make it.

The 12-year-old from Strathmore, Alta., had just suffered a severe brain injury during a luge training run at Calgary's Olympic Park.

Doctors didn't know whether or not Sevick would survive the traumatic collision on one of the icy course's final turns. If she pulled through, there was a chance Sevick was facing a serious disability.

Two decades on she not only lives a normal life, Sevick is now an Olympian after the 32-year-old rower raced to a second-place finish with Gabrielle Smith in Friday's heats of the women's double sculls at the Tokyo Games.

"I learned so much from that experience," Sevick said of her accident as she fought back tears at the sweltering Sea Forest Waterway. "I don't think I could have got here if that hadn't happened.

"I learned a lot (about) resilience."

A tough cookie

The Canadian duo finished in a time of six minutes 57.69 seconds over 2,000 metres to comfortably qualify for Monday's semifinals.

Sevick, who grabbed a surprising gold in the single sculls at the 2019 Pan Am Games after taking up rowing at age 26, was in a coma for two weeks in the wake of that terrifying crash 20 years ago.

Her injury led to cerebellar atrophy — Sevick has to work at staying balanced on both land and water — and the recovery process continues to this day.

But it hasn't slowed her down.

The odds of making the Olympics are long for anyone. Sevick's were far longer.

"She's a tough cookie," said Smith, a 26-year-old from Unionville, Ont., also enjoying her Games debut. "I can always count on her to fight. That's a pretty valuable trait."

"She brings all of her lifelong experiences," added Iain Brambell, Rowing Canada's high performance director and an Olympic bronze medallist.

A funny journey

In other action on Tokyo Bay in the hours leading up to Friday's opening ceremony for the pandemic-delayed sporting showcase, Trevor Jones of Lakefield, Ont., won his heat in the men's single sculls to advance to the quarterfinals, while Carling Zeeman of Cambridge, Ont., was second in her women's sculls heat.

"Good to get the first one," said Jones, another Olympic rookie at age 23. "Get the nerves out of the way, and just get into it."

Zeeman, 30, is at her second Games following a 10th-place finish in Rio five years ago.

"Each Games in their own rights are pretty special," she said after battling temperatures that felt like 36 C with the humidity. "It's been a long journey getting here. I've had a pretty tough year with a couple injuries, a few setbacks.

"This is the fun part. Just race."

Incredibly, that's something Sevick and Smith had never done together prior to Friday.

They were paired the week before COVID-19 brought the world — and sports — to a screeching halt in March 2020.

"It was a funny journey," Smith said. "We never really quite got the chance to actually celebrate our partnership. But looking back at the past 16 months, I think there's a lot to be really proud of."

'It took over my life'

Smith actually qualified the boat for the Olympics at the 2019 world championships with Andrea Proske before the program's hierarchy shook things up with its women's crews.

"We joked about it so many times last year when COVID was brewing and the World Cups got cancelled," Sevick said. "We're like, 'Oh my God, what if our first race is the Olympic heat?' Then the Olympics got delayed.

"March comes again and we're not going to World Cups, and we're like, 'OK, sick. Our first race is going to be the Olympic heat."'

Sevick didn't start rowing until her mid-20s after blowing out a knee playing soccer. Enduring a slow recovery and distraught at the prospect of another surgery, her physiotherapist suggested a new path.

"I thought I was just joining a recreational rowing club where I'd get a 'hot bod' and make lots of friends," Sevick said with a smile. "I was fortunate enough to be in Calgary when a whole bunch of fast women were there. We kind of took off.

"It took over my life, my family's life, my boyfriend's life, and here we are."

'Everyone has rallied behind me my whole life'

The only downside for Sevick and Smith is they can't share this experience in Japan with loved ones because of pandemic-related fan and travel restrictions.

"They have honestly been there every step of the way for us, especially this last year and a half," Sevick said. "To not have them here is pretty sad, but I think they're cheering (and) still pretty stoked.

"My mom cried the day that she was supposed to fly to Tokyo."

There's still plenty of work to do, but Sevick is allowing herself the chance to reflect on this incredible, improbable, inspiring journey as the moment continues to unfold.

"My family and everyone has rallied behind me my whole life," she said. "It's just crazy.

"It's crazy where we've come."