Success in Tokyo shows progression in Rowing Canada rebuild, athletes say

With a gold medal in a big women's boat, a bronze medal in a small boat, and a near-podium finish on the men's side, there's lots of upside for Canada's rowing program following a rebuild leading into Tokyo.

'The future looks bright and awesome,' says 3-time Olympian Will Crothers

Canada's Caileigh Filmer and Hillary Janssens pose on the podium following their bronze-medal win in the women's pair final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo on July 29. (Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images)

The first thing Caileigh Filmer noticed when she first held her bronze medal was the weight.

Four hundred and fifty grams to be exact. One pound. And yet for everything an Olympic medal symbolizes, it was a metaphorical fulfillment for the Victoria native who shared the bronze with Hillary Janssens in the women's pair event on July 28.

"When I first picked it up I felt the weight of it, and immediately my first thought was like, 'wow, this is a heavy medal,' and it really resembles the weight of everything that has gone into it," Filmer told CBC Sports.

"For Hillary and I, we've both had a pretty big year with getting through some pretty major injuries. And just mentally staying healthy and having a good well-being. It's just a pretty heavy feeling.

WATCH | Olympic Moments: An inspired performance from Filmer and Janssens:

Olympic Moments: An inspired performance from Filmer and Janssens in doubles rowing

1 year ago
Duration 1:30
The legacy of Canadian rower Kathleen Heddle lives on to inspire a bronze medal performance from Hillary Janssens and Caileigh Filmer in doubles rowing. Olympic Moments presented by Visa.

"Especially through such an extremely different and difficult year, with the additional year because of COVID and everything that we've all had to go through."

Indeed. In an Instagram post leading up to Tokyo, Filmer shared her story about battling depression. A year ago, a broken collarbone which required surgery had sidelined the 24-year-old. For Janssens, a back injury kept her off the water for three months.

Yet somehow, Filmer said, they pushed through, crediting their mutual trust and their work ethic which carried them onto the podium.

"For Hillary and I, this past year we've had points where someone else might have very easily been able to be like, 'Okay, there's no way we're getting to the Olympics. Our journey is done.'" Filmer said.

"I think that for us, this medal, that was the race of our life that day. We gave the best race that we possibly could have. We were able to walk away from that race with no regrets on our performance.

"For me, it was so emotional finishing. I think I started thinking about everything that we had been through, and in awe of ourselves that it had really happened and we really won a medal, and that we did it and we finished."

WATCH | Canada's golden rowers hope to inspire next generation of young athletes:

Canada sending largest rowing team in 25 years to the Tokyo Olympics

1 year ago
Duration 9:52
Olympic champion rower and Team Canada chef de mission for the 2020 Olympic Games Marnie McBean, and first-time Olympic rower Gabrielle Smith joined CBC Morning Live's Heather Hiscox to discuss the large contingent of rowers that Canada will be sending to Tokyo 2020.

Moving the program across the country

The bronze medal — along with the gold medal from the women's eight — also serves as validation for a national rowing program which has undergone myriad of changes in the past quadrennial.

One of the major changes was moving the women's program out to Victoria. Rowing Canada attributed the move at the time to giving the team more repetitions on the water, and to create a better high-performance training environment for both women's and men's teams.

WATCH | Canada's women's eight rowers win 1st Olympic gold medal since 1992:

While the move didn't directly impact Filmer, who already resided in the area, she said it was one of the keys to the program's success overall in Tokyo.

"I think it was really important for the men and the women to come together. I think having everyone together as one team was so awesome. We were able to train together in certain sessions during the weeks, then the entire team can line up and get to race," Filmer said, although the pandemic didn't allow for much of cross-collaboration in the lead-up to Tokyo.

"I think coming together has been a critical part. But I really feel for the girls that did have to uproot and move. I know that's part of sport. But it's not easy when you think you're going to be in one place and then you have to move somewhere else.

"Because those girls, some of them have their partners, houses, and whatnot. They've built their lives thinking they're in one city and then they have to move. I think a lot of girls who had to do that are really in that eight [boat], so they made it worth it."

'The future looks bright'

To be sure, moving the women's program over to Victoria also paid dividends for the men's program too, which had its own slew of changes following a disappointing outing at Rio 2016.

"Having the women come out here obviously helped them and their program move forward," said Conlin McCabe, who rowed for the men's pair in his third Olympics. "And it was good for us too because we had them as a standard. Like we compare ourselves to each other on gold medal times, instead of a time based off of a world record or what's anticipated to be the winning time."

WATCH | Canadian rowers Langerfeld and McCabe just miss out on a medal in men's pair:

While the men didn't pick up any medals for the second consecutive games, there is some upside for the program following its first Olympics since its rebuild after Rio.

McCabe, along with Kai Langerfeld fell only half-a-second shy of earning Canada's first medal in men's pairs since 2008 in Beijing.

And while the men's four dropped two spots in their final placing from Rio, the sheer number of athletes within the program now lends some optimism heading into Paris in three years.

WATCH | Canada sending largest rowing team in 25 years to the Tokyo Olympics:

"I do think that there have been massive steps forward since Rio," said Will Crothers, who along with McCabe and Langerfeld has been with the program for the highs of a silver medal in London, the lows of Rio, and the rebuild into Tokyo.

"Just the volume of athletes we were able to qualify just to get to the Olympics I think is a huge step forward for rowing in Canada. The culture has deepened as well. At the end of the day it's the athletes who are really pushing things forward. It takes a hungry group of athletes at the bottom of the pyramid, if you will, to make sure it's stronger at the top.

"That's the foundation of it. It's just athletes that are hungry and want to go out and achieve their dreams is what really pushes things on. The future looks bright and awesome."


Nick Murray


Nick Murray is a CBC News reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He specializes in investigative reporting and access to information legislation. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports.

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