Kate Sauks with lightweight double partner Liz Fenje after receiving their gold medals
It’s 5:15 am, stars dot the sky, there is a brisk wind that is slowly freezing my hands as I bike toward Hanlan. Up ahead there are flashing red lights, my teammates, can I catch them before the bike path? I pump my legs harder and finally reach them, our peloton cruises along the dark path and finally into Hanlan. It’s my first fall at Hanlan, the fall when I truly fell in love with rowing. Since that fall of 2010, I rowed out of Hanlan as a Varsity Blue and as a member of the senior competitive group up until November 2014. I then left Hanlan and Toronto to row throughout the winter months in Victoria, BC and then in May was invited to the London Training Center and finally, named to the lightweight double to compete at the Pan Am Games. When I think back to January, making the National Rowing Team and next, being selected to the Pan Am team was only a mere hope. Now, I’m so proud to say that I won gold at my first big multisport rowing event. Participating at the Pan Am Games on home turf was an incredible, once in a lifetime experience. I got to walk in the Opening Ceremonies, even though I had heats racing the next day, I lived in an athlete village, I was on TV, in the paper, me and my teammates were stars for a moment, and that was really neat. But what I think has been so wonderful about these games was how much Hanlan and Toronto became involved. I loved seeing fellow Hanlan Members and friends, Meg Lewicki and Ali Zimmerman at the starting gates, and then to hear and see so many others at the finish line was incredible! Thank you to everyone who came out to cheer me and my teammates on to the highest number of Pan Am medals Rowing Canada has ever won!
In this article I will share some thoughts and advice that I have from my time at Hanlan and my short stint on the National scene thus far.
Kate and Liz crossing the finish line!
My favourite Hanlan memories:
It is hard to say exactly what my favourite memories from Hanlan are, but I can say that I love the waterway we row on. Rowing on Lake Ontario has made me fearless of wind and waves, respectful of fog, and appreciative of flat water. Hands down, Hanlan has the best sunrises and sunsets. It also has the best city skyline, I especially love the golden building that pops out of the city when the sun hit its just right. I have seen many shooting stars and giant moons while rowing during fall and spring mornings, and during migration, I’ve had thousands of Cormorants fly right over my boat. My favourite practices while at Hanlan were when boats were lined up across the waterway side by side, hammering out pieces!
What I saw during my short time at Elk Lake, Vicotria, BC (I rowed there with Barney Williams and the Row to Podium group from January until May):
Nesting bald eagles that catch fish in front of you, and an almost daily rainbow sighting.
A crazy Lake Fanshawe fact (my current training location):
There is a fighter jet that takes off and lands at the airport near the lake (rumour has it the pilot works at a base near Barrie during the week but lives in London on the weekends). It has done a vertical take off right over our boats- causing the water to vibrate. Talk about a great pump-up for race pieces!
Typical Day at the London Training Center:
One of the best things about being at the LTC is that we don’t start our practice until 7:20! YAY! But we need that sleep-in. The first row is usually 70-90 minutes long, then we head to team breakfast. Second practice starts at 11:15 and is usually another 70-90 min row or circuit training. The third practice of the day is at 4pm and is either a 70-90 minute row, erg (3x6000m) or weights. Between practices I usually put my feet up and read, eat, sleep or watch Netflix. I try to hit the hay at about 9-9:30 pm. Sundays are often a personal day but sometimes we have 60-120 minutes of x-training.
How do I deal with the stress of race day?
Racing can be really stressful. I have never been more nervous than I was before the Pan Am heats and finals, but seat racing is almost more stressful because without a fast performance you don’t even get the chance to race. I think it’s important to realize the stress and then mentally prepare yourself for it. A great way how to manage stress is to make a detailed, hardcopy plan that you can refer back to. Plan out your race day or weekend starting from the time you get to the venue to the time you leave the venue. For example, outline dinner plans, when you’ll rig your boat and go for practice rows, plan out what you’ll do for those practice rows then what you’ll do for warm-up, racing and post-race/recovery, schedule wake-up times, weight-in times, etc. But make sure you allow for adjustments, don’t get frazzled when suddenly race times change, just adjust your plan accordingly. Once you have your plan, all you need to do is follow it. I also find it helpful to keep perspective. Take your race stroke for stroke. When Liz and I lined up for our races at Pan Ams, I just thought- get the boat moving in the first five strokes, then just go stroke by stroke and follow our plan. If we had a bad stoke who cares because we were right back on it for the next stroke.
Some random experiences at the Pan Am Games:
I never could have imagined how structured my life would have to be for those days leading up to the Pan Am games and then during the games. It turns out that when you’re part of a team such as this, almost every moment of your day is accounted for and you are given special visiting hours and location for when/where you can meet up with family and friends. At first I found this a bit stressful as I wanted to see my husband and family, whom I hadn’t seen in months, but as the games rolled in and as more and more people wanted to meet up, I saw how valuable this rule was for keeping the athletes focused as well as for helping to remind friends and family why we were there and what our jobs were.
The athlete village in Toronto was incredible (we were slightly less fortunate at the Bock Residence). There was an arcades games tent, a food tent with more options available than you could imagine, a mini-square with salon, bank, café, grocery store. Most things were free. While we were there Prime Minister Steven Harper came by and took pictures with us and then played ping pong with my teammate, Matt Buie. The PM was a bit rusty with his game.
One of the assistant Chef de Mission, Waneek Horn-Miller, a proud Mohawk, made special leather pouches containing tobacco for every single Canadian athlete at the Pan Am games. Mohawk warriors would wear tobacco pouches as a reminder of the strength they possessed. Waneek Horn-Miller is one of the most passionate and exhilarating women I have ever heard speak, and is now one of my top female role models.
Some technical tips:
In the last six months I have had a few aha moments that may also help you. First, be more intent on improving the small things about your technique, like feathering and squaring the blades with your fingers and thumb and squaring the blade down to the water. It takes thousands of strokes to change a habit, so you will need to focus on those changes for many training sessions. Second, rowing is not just pushing as hard as you can each stroke but about being most efficient. You only need to apply enough force at the catch so that the blades grip the water but not too much that it rip through the water, wasting all that energy you put into it. I have learnt the importance of knowing what a good catch and stroke sounds like to use it as instant feedback. Lastly, the catch can be separated into two distinct phases. Phase one is dropping the blade into the water, the second phase is pushing with the legs. If you start pushing with the legs before the blade is fully buried you will “miss” a ton of water and suddenly your stroke length is much shorter, also your catch will be quite noisy. A good catch hardly makes any sound at all!
Nutritional advice for lightweight rowers:
Making weight can be difficult and unpleasant if you don’t do it properly. My best advice to you is not to yo-yo. Try to remain within 5-7 lbs of weigh-in weight year round and then come down to within 500g of target weight over a few months leading into competition. With 24-48 hours to go before race day, avoid salt and eat “low residue” foods (foods low in fibre) such as white bread, pasta, rice, melons, potatoes, chicken and meat, quick cooking oats, dairy and very well cooked veggies (no raw veggies), oil and butter. Also, do not restrict water up until bedtime. With this change in diet you can lose a couple of pounds of gut weight/fluid retention. It is so important to eat properly while you’re training in order to have enough energy and not get injured.
Favourite rowing accessory:
I love having a speed coach and a “Gold Medal Standard” (GMS) chart for my boat class. For me, the GMS chart identifies the speed I would need to go at any given stroke rate to row a Worlds best time for 2000m. The goal is to get as close to this number as possible. One of my west coast coach’s favourite things to say is “know the standard and then exceed it” (Barney Williams). If trying to reach GMS is a bit daunting, try calculating the GMS for your biggest event, such as Henley. For example, average historical winning times for your event and then calculate the speed per 500m you should go to row that time. Also, for a steady state row it is pretty impossible to go GMS, so make a goal of trying to row the whole row at ~80% GMS. It sure keeps you honest on those long steady pieces! The speed coach is great for providing instant feedback on how fast you’re going, and how technique and wind changes your speed.
So what’s next for Hanlan and me?
Hanlan is known in part for its sparseness, its lack of a “real” boathouse. What does a new boathouse mean for Hanlan? To me, it means a re-branding, a professionalization, a step in the direction of high performance. Toronto has the potential to be a prime spot for high performance rowing, as Victoria and London are, and Hanlan with its new facility could be that center. But a new boat house will also benefit recreational, masters and club rowers by increasing the number of spots available. Hanlan has been bursting at its seams the past couple years and this face lift and renovation may just elevate Hanlan to be one of the top clubs in Canada. I’m really excited to see the continual development of this project!
For me, the week following the Pan Am Games was filled with seat racing with four lightweights trying to qualify for three spots on the World Championship team (for the lightweight 2x, and a spare that would also race the lightweight 1x). I cannot say who has been named to the team, as it is still unofficial, but I can say that I will continue to be rowing at the LTC as a carded athlete until 2016. This winter we’ll go to lots of training camps in Florida and will spend the majority of the winter rowing. Next spring and summer, as long as I remain healthy and continue to get faster, I’ll compete for a spot on the Olympic team. If I do not make the Olympics I will be racing for a spot to compete at the non-Olympic World Championships. After that, maybe it’ll be time to enter the real work world…
My last bit of advice is, “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re probably not big enough”. Challenge yourself, put yourself into the position to do your best, and then the sky is the limit!
I hope to see you soon,