Kayaker Michelle Russell living her grandmother’s dream

Kayaker Michelle Russell living her grandmother’s dream

Nova Scotia native paddles low-key persona to success

By Tim Wharnsby for CBC Sports
June 29, 2015

Michelle Russell thought she knew everything about her grandmother.

Then one day the Canadian kayak sprinter was rummaging through some of her grandmother’s keepsakes and she came across a newspaper clipping.

It turns out Russell’s grandmother had won a lottery worth $1.4-million when she was younger.

“I found out through a news article,” Russell said. “She kept – I’m the same way – everything. So, she had news articles about how Dartmouth flooded in the 70’s and all these news articles, especially about her kids and it was just in there and I found it.”

For the most part, however, Russell’s grandmother kept the big win quiet. At least, this was news to the granddaughter until she read the clipping. That low-key persona is alive and well in Michelle.

What does Russell ponder when she thinks about her grandmother?

“Just how humble she was,” Russell said. “I never knew a lot about her when she was alive, more after when she passed away in 2004.

“I learned about how my grandfather died when she was young, and she had six kids to take care of. She kind of soldiered on and worked and worked.

“Then she actually ended up winning the lottery in the 80’s. I never knew this until she passed away. She never talked about it.”

Russell’s grandmother did talk about her desire to be a paddler when she was younger. But her family’s strict and religious background kept her from participating in the sport.

You see, young ladies back then were expected to wear a skirt when they were involved in sports. But a skirt prohibited her grandmother from paddling, so instead, her sporting life was limited to baseball and basketball.

At the 2013 under-23 world championship, Michelle Russell won in the K1-200M final and won bronze in the K1-500M race. (Balint Vekassy/Canoe-Kayak Canada) At the 2013 under-23 world championship, Michelle Russell won in the K1-200M final and won bronze in the K1-500M race. (Balint Vekassy/Canoe-Kayak Canada)

But that changed for Russell’s mother and her siblings. They were allowed to engage in paddling races and this was passed on down to Russell.

The youngest in a family of three brothers and a sister started in the sport at age six, and turned out to be a prodigy.

“I was actually a year too young to start paddling properly, but the club I was at had small numbers in registration so they just pushed me up and no one said anything. I was a year too young,” Russell said.

The 23-year-old Russell carries the spirit of her grandmother into competition. She’s quiet, but efficient. This approach, plus the support of her family has her poised for a breakthrough.

Turning heads

Russell began turning heads in her sport at age 17 during the 2009 Canada Games in Charlottetown, P.E.I, when she won gold in the K4-500M and K2-1000M events, as well as silver medals in the K1-1000M and K1-2000M races.

Russell’s hometown is Fall River, N.S., a suburb of nearby Halifax-Dartmouth, and she trains at the Cheema Aquatic Club in Waverley.

Of course, this area of the world has been put on the map recently because of hockey players Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon, who both were raised in nearby Cole Harbour. But paddling has long been a staple sport in the area.

And recent success from Adam Van Koeverden, of Oakville, Ont., and Calgary’s Mark de Jonge has put the spotlight on the Canadian kayak team.

“Paddling is, I think, one of Canada’s best summer sports so there’s a lot of pressure there especially after we got three medals last Olympics,” Russell said.

“But our women’s program hasn’t been achieving the level we want to, so it’s definitely more pressure because I think our discipline is more of the underdog when it comes to the international scene. So, I have to try to step it up a bit.”


For inspiration, Russell sometimes views Canada’s trials and tribulations at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when the water conditions were wild.

Her favourite race to take in was Caroline Brunet’s silver-medal performance in the women’s K-1 500 because that’s when the weather was at its worst.

“One of the things about paddling is we have personal bests and world record times, but it’s not like swimming where it’s very consistent,” she said.

“Because paddling is an outdoor sport you deal with different conditions. I say it’s like an elemental sport because whatever the weather is that day is what you’re going to race in as long as it’s not thunder and lightning or the wind doesn’t exceed 50 kilometres an hour.

“I like to watch the Sydney Olympics because it had weather conditions you wouldn’t normally race. You don’t see the boats at one point because the waves are going over the bow, but … it reminds me that no matter the time, it could be Olympics, the weather does not care. So, you have to race in everything.”

Warmth of Canadian crowd

Competing at home in front of friends, family and the warmth of a Canadian crowd at the Welland International Flatwater Centre at the Pan American Games this summer will be an exciting time for Russell.

Her family support is strong and she has experience racing in Welland, Ont., with success.

At the 2013 under-23 world championship, Russell was the victor in the K1-200M final and won bronze in the K1-500M race.

“I got that opportunity and that was great because the two racing distances that I do, the 500 and the 200, the 200 I ended up winning,” Russell said. “It was the first-ever for an under-23, so I get to brag that I was the first under-23 world champion in that event.

“Because the [race venue in] Welland is so far from the city, and people who actually show up to the event are usually ones that are involved in some way or they know someone, so it was very nice to have everyone that I know either in the stands or behind the [race] camera.

“Since I’ve gone through a home-court advantage already I know how to deal with it a little bit better. I won’t be so caught off guard, I think. You can win all the practices but you don’t know where that puts you internationally, so it definitely gave me a taste of what I could do.”


To help her prepare for the Pan American Games in Toronto, Russell has been added to CIBC’s Team Next.

In this program, Russell has been assigned a mentor in former Canadian women’s national soccer team star Kara Lang.

Lang was the youngest to play for and score a goal in national team history. She has plenty to pass on to the young kayaker.

“It definitely has helped,” Russell said. “I’ve been exchanging emails with Kara for the past year, when I’ve been travelling and when I’ve had some hard times and down times and she’ll always give me like a lengthy email response back telling me a personal story of her.

“It’s really nice to see even though we do different sports. She’s in a team competitive sport and I’m in an individual racing sport, that we can have the same kind of experience if you take away all the rules and the formalities of our sport.”

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