On Tuesday, The Globe and Mail published a story about longtime coxswain of the Canadian women’s rowing team—56-year-old Lesley Thompson-Willie.
The angle of the Globe article was essentially to glorify Thompson because of her age—to emphasize that age is just a number—and to inspire people to realize age doesn’t need to slow you down.
56-year-old Thompson has had a stronghold on the coxswain position in Canada since 1980.
“I think it’s redefining to our society that we can keep going, as long as we’re active,” said Thompson in the article.
What a lovely message, right?
But maybe not.
When I read the story, I couldn’t help but grow a bit perturbed—angry, even. I couldn’t help but think:
'C’mon woman, retire already and give another coxswain a chance! If you want to stay fit and tiny, join a gym and eat well. Your decision to hog the one position available to a female coxswain every four years is shortsighted, a little greedy, and maybe even a bit pathetic.’
(For the record, Thompson has held the one coxswain position since 1980. For 36 years!).
When I read the article, I couldn’t help but see it from the perspective of an aspiring coxswain coming through the ranks. Couldn’t help but imagine it from Kristen Kit’s perspective.
Kit is a 27-year-old coxswain, who got involved in the sport of rowing in Grade 9 in St. Catharines, Ontario—a world renowned rowing city. She has been dreaming about the Olympics since she quickly became a coxing force in high school, and later continued her pursuit at the University of British Columbia.
“I (used to) believe if I worked hard enough to learn from the best rowers, coaches and coxswains then I would have a chance to earn a berth to represent Canada at an Olympics." - Kristen Kit
After university, she uprooted her life and moved to London, Ontario to train full-time with the women’s national team, all the while wondering, waiting, hoping for the day Thompson would retire—painfully aware that unless Thompson starts becoming senile in her old age and loses the ability to steer the boat, the powers that be at Rowing Canada will not remove someone with so much experience from the coxswain position.
In the meantime, Kit has had the honour of representing Canada with the Under-23 women’s national team multiple times, and in 2013 even thought the day might have come for her to step into the role with the senior team.
A seat she would do anything to sit in...at the Olympics
Thompson left the program (briefly), and Kit represented Canada with the women’s 8 at the 2013 World Championships.
After experiencing a taste of what the Olympics might feel like at senior Worlds, she was soon informed Thompson was making a triumphant return to train for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
“Weeks after winning a bronze medal (at the World Championships) I was told that Lesley (Thompson) has decided to come back and therefore the seat was being given to her for the 2014 season,” Kit said. “The (coxswain) seat, unlike a rower’s seat, is selected subjectively.”
What Thompson’s decision to apparently never retire has meant for Kit—and many other talented female coxswain’s, who have come and gone in the last 30 years—is the dream to become an Olympic coxswain is all for nothing.
“I (used to) believe if I worked hard enough to learn from the best rowers, coaches and coxswains then I would have a chance to earn a berth to represent Canada at an Olympics,” Kit said.
She knows now this isn’t the case.
The Canadian Women's 8 winning a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games with Thompson in the driver's seat
“For many aspiring coxswains, there really isn’t any hope (to get to the Olympics). There are other coxswains who came before me…who were incredibly talented, smart and successful, who were able to see the situation for what it is,” she added.
Most of these other talented coxswains just accepted the situation and moved on. Quit. Retired. But not Kit. Her love for her sport is too strong to just abandon it.
Instead, Kit has accepted the coxswain role with Canada’s Paralympic rowing team, and will be competing in her second Paralympic Games in Rio this summer—a role she has embraced with all her heart.
“We have had some ups and downs…difficulties with budget compared to our able-bodied counterparts, however; the experience has helped me realize my abilities,” she said, adding it has been incredibly fulfilling to contribute to the growth of the adaptive rowing program in Canada. “And the (Paralympic) athletes are extraordinary. They train at a high-performance level, and are all individually inspiring people.”
Kit continues to enjoy coxing any chance she gets!
As great as the experience has been for Kit, and as excited as she is to travel to Rio with the adaptive rowing team, it’s still not the Olympic Games. Not her Olympic Games
Why the coxswain situation is different than other sports
To gain another perspective, I reached out to a former national team rowing friend of mine and asked her opinion.
In return, she challenged me with this: “If the veteran remains faster than you, don’t they deserve to get the spot?” She followed this with: “Hayley Wickenheiser has been on Team Canada (hockey) for years, and it’s her leadership that gets her on the team.”
To this I say:
Ordinarily, I would agree. When it comes to sports, I generally think the people who will most help the team should make the team. Simple as that.
HOWEVER, in every other sport, there’s a natural human sport life cycle thing that happens. As current stars age and peak and start to decline, new up-and-coming athletes come in and replace them—just like in life. Veterans are looked up to and respected, like Michael Phelps, while new stars like Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak take the world by storm and inspire a new generation.
A new star—16-year-old Oleksiak—is born!
People would be tired of Michael Jordan by now if he were still lumbering up and down the basketball court at 53. Luckily, that would never happen because of the natural order of things: Out with the old, in with the new. It’s what keeps sports exciting, and it’s what keeps people watching.
But Thompson’s age of 56 proves, unlike swimming or basketball or any other Olympic sport, coxswains don’t need to be anywhere near their physical prime to remain a force.
The Globe and Mail article suggests being a coxswain requires physical fitness, namely core strength, but the fact that Thompson is 56 proves only mediocre physical abilities are required. (I imagine she’s very fit for 56, but I guarantee her capacity was far greater back in 1984).
And as for my friend’s Wickenheiser comparison, it might be true that she is chosen purely for her leadership at this point; however, there are many positions on a hockey team. Many female hockey players get to experience the Olympics each cycle. But for a female coxswain, there is one spot for one athlete every four years.
Thompson’s choice to hog it for thirty-six years has distorted the natural Olympic athlete life cycle, and in the process has turned the coxswain seat for females in Canada a place where dreams go to die.