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Gold medal-winning Vancouver Island Olympian still basking in the dream

Rower Avalon Wasteneys brings home gold from Tokyo 2020 games

Campbell River rower Avalon Wasteneys is enjoying the triumph of winning gold with the women’s eight at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, even if it still feels a bit like a dream.

Over the course of the competition, the Canadian crew competed in three races, capping its performance on July 30 by winning the gold medal. Throughout these races, Wasteneys was in the stroke seat (the rower closest to the boat’s stern), being responsible for setting the crew’s rowing rate and rhythm.

The crew’s first race was in the qualifying round on July 24 — in which there were two heats, with each first-place team proceeding directly to the finals. In the second heat, Canada placed second, just 0.32 seconds behind New Zealand. This meant the Canadian crew would then need to compete in the repechage round to reach the finals.

But having to compete in this next round, on July 28, actually benefited the Canadian crew, said Wasteneys.

“I felt if we weren’t going to win (the qualifiers) by a huge amount, then it was probably best that we went to the rep to get more race experience, because it’s been two years without racing,” she said. “We thought the ‘rep’ can’t hurt us — it can only make us stronger, and it’s better than having to wait a week to race again.”

With high winds that day, the crews thought there was a chance for a quick race, meaning records could be broken. That view proved correct, as the Canadian crew completed the race in 5:53.73, besting the previous record of 5:54.16. Unfortunately for them, however, the Romanian team came first and now holds the world best time of 5:52.99.

“We crossed the line and realized we broke the world record, but Romania had broken it before us, which was a bit disappointing,” she said. “It’s kind of frustrating, because I don’t know what we could have changed, but it would have been cool to have that record to our names.”

Despite narrowly missing the record, the crew’s performance provided them confidence heading into the finals, said Wasteneys.

“We then knew exactly what we had to do and how we could dominate that race,” she said. “That was very, very useful for those days leading up — we were just trying to monitor our energy and stay very relaxed, very calm (and) not getting too anxious beforehand.”

During the warm ups for finals, the crew was feeling a little tired and sluggish, she said. But just before the race, the adrenaline kicked in.

“That’s when the nerves really hit me — for the first time I really felt that I was about to compete at the Olympics and potentially make history,” she said.

The Canadian crew, known for being strongest in the middle of races because of their endurance and technique, aimed to surprise the other crews with a fast start.

They won off the line and never relented. At around the 250- to 500-metre mark, the boat’s coxswain told the rowers they were in charge of their own destiny.

“She made a call, which was something around the lines of, ‘you get to choose what colour medal you want,’ — and obviously, we all knew what colour we wanted.”

They faced a late challenge by New Zealand’s crew, but they held steady and won.

Wasteneys never wavered during the race.

“I never even looked out of the boat,” she said. “I just trusted our coxswain and just tried to focus on our race plan and provide as consistent and strong a rhythm as I could for my crewmates.”

But that changed a bit once it was over.

“As soon as I crossed that finish line and actually registered what happened, I was just overwhelmed with emotions,” she said. “I surprised myself by breaking into tears, partially of relief and happiness — and just pure joy — that we had finally executed the perfect race and had actually achieved what we’ve been dreaming about for these past few years.”

Wasteneys and her teammates left Japan the following day, arriving in Canada on Aug. 1.

“It was weird because it almost made it feel like a dream,” she said. “We’re dealing with jet lag and fatigue, and we also didn’t get to celebrate our achievement together, which was disappointing for all of us — but we know we’ll have chances in the future to reconnect and celebrate what we did.”

Wasteneys is now visiting friends and family in British Columbia to share the joy of her accomplishment. While she will not return to competitive rowing until January, she did not rule out taking her aunt’s single boat out for a spin sometime soon.