Kevin Kowalyk smiled from one side of his mouth when he saw Canada Post’s commemorative Rowing Canada stamp unveiled by fellow London-bound rowers Dave Calder and Morgan Jarvis. The stamp’s release, which depicts a men’s double scull, followed the formal introduction of Rowing Canada’s Olympic team at Elk Lake on Thursday.
Crews from six of Canada’s seven Olympic boats were there, while the women’s heavyweight eight was officially confirmed at its Ontario training centre.
As the stamp stood prominently on display, rowers from the country’s more established boats took the spotlight, such as the gold-medal-winning men’s eight, and the locally produced women’s double of Lindsay Jennerich and Patricia Obee. Meanwhile Kowalyk and his doubles partner Michael Braithwaite stood quitely among the remaining group of the 21 rowers.
Ironcially, they’ll be manning the double scull depicted on the Olympic-themed stamp.
“That’s totally our boat, so this is pretty cool,” Kowalyk said.
Granted it’s not actually Kowalyk and Braithwaite depicted in the stamp, which was designed by Kosta Tsetsekas and Mike Savage of Vancouver-based Signals Design, and illustrated by Keith Martin.
Kowalyk, 31, isn’t surprised at the lack of attention.
“Back where I come from in Winnipeg, I don’t even think they know I exist.”
The story of Kowalyk’s journey to becoming a London Olympian is hard not to love – an everyman who coached himself onto the national team.
At 25 years old, he was a typical Winnipegger, working sales in the oil industry and playing hockey at night. He was kickboxing, too. But a concussion limited him from both sports, and led to trying rowing for the first time.
“I thought I was going kayaking. I had no idea what was ahead.”
It took a while to get a knack for it but he loved it from the start.
When the economy dimmed and his job became expendable, Kowalyk took the opportunity to enroll at the University of Manitoba and pour the rest of his energy into rowing.
“I found myself in pretty good shape, but still didn’t make the cut in 2010, and I ran out of money. So I came back in 2011.”
Up until that point, Kowalyk had literally coached himself.
“The rowing (scene) in Winnipeg isn’t like here, so my prospects weren’t high.”
Through domestic competitions he made his way into the men’s four, and helped qualify that boat for this summer’s Olympics, finishing seventh at the Rowing World Cup in Bled, Slovenia, in 2011.
All he had to do was keep up his training, and he was London-bound, but things happen, like pneumonia.
When he caught the debilitating lung infection in December, it knocked him out of the four. When he came back, he was isolated in a single scull, starting from scratch. Such is the life of a rower, and then some.
“It’s funny because (Braithwaite) and I were roommates but were in different boats. Instead of trying to get back in the four, all of a sudden we were competing against each other for a spot in the double.”
At 25, Braithwaite is the same age at which Kowalyk started. The Duncan native rowed varsity at the University of Toronto, and went on to win the men’s under-23 national championship in the single scull, and again in 2010 in the senior men’s category.
Both relocated to Victoria early in 2011, and soon rented a place together, typical of the national rowers who come to Elk Lake’s training centre.
But things went from brotherly to awkward this spring, cramping their homespace.
During trials in March and April, Kowalyk and Braithwaite were part of a doubles matrix, with Fraser Berkhout and Steve Van Knotsenburg.
Unless Kowalyk and Braithwaite finished first and second in the matrix rankings
– which they eventually did, respectively – each was at risk of eliminating the other’s Olympic dream.
“It could have been worse. There was some tension, but really, the only effect was we didn’t speak as much during that time,” Braithwaite said.
And it’s all good now, to the point where Braithwaite wonders if they’d be doing as well if they hadn’t established the chemistry they have.
“My goal was to get set up for the next quadrennial by making a push for this summer’s Olympics, with (Rio de Janeiro 2016) being the ultimate goal,” Braithwaite said. “(London) is just icing on the cake.”
“I’m pretty confident (Braithwaite) will get me where I want to go,” Kowalyk said.
Four years at a time
Kowalyk will return to the University of Manitoba for Sept. 6, but will be back to defend his boat at the national championships here at Elk Lake in November, and plans to campaign with Rowing Canada for the next quadrennial. To do so, he’ll have to submit ERG (rowing machine) scores at regular intervals, before rejoining the program full-time in two years.