Owning the Podium
Written by Douglas Vandor
Winning rowing medals on the world stage takes years, sometimes decades, of perseverance.
And while there are many notable regattas every season, the most prestigious race is celebrated once a quadrennial, making an Olympic medal the ultimate prize.
Nothing can be left to chance in order to succeed at this level.
Nevertheless, there is always a part of the process that is beyond the athlete’s control, a component where the stars must simply align in one’s favor.
Cristy Nurse recognizes this better than anyone.
The all-around athlete from Georgetown, Ontario, may well have aspired to reach the pinnacle in any number of sports growing up.
She settled on rowing, and set her sights on owning a piece of the Olympic rowing podium.
She came very close to achieving that goal at the London 2012 Games, before the calamity of an injury sidelined her within weeks of the opening ceremonies.
Four years later, her body is cooperating with her lofty expectations, allowing her to chase her pursuit to her fullest potential. Nurse is more than ready for the chance to participate in her sports most glamorous race.
“Not being able to race in 2012 was heartbreaking,” explained the well-spoken Nurse. “It was a difficult time.”
The decision to remove Nurse from the women’s eight lineup was made two weeks before the team left Canada for London, a moment she will not soon forget.
“My back injury was not allowing me to flow with the rhythm of the boat,” Nurse explained. “I was not at my best, and a decision had to be made. I was replaced.”
It was a poignant ending to a fairy tale that had begun only a couple of years before.
A successful multisport athlete in high school, Nurse was recruited to play basketball at the University of Guelph.
At the end of her first season, she realized she was out of her league. She didn’t have the skills required to play at that level, and it was too late to learn them.
“These girls had only ever played basketball their whole lives,” Nurse elaborated. “Basketball was just one of my seven after school activities!”
Thus ended her university basketball career.
Not to worry.
Her athleticism and her resourcefulness opened up another opportunity.
Interning at a Mississauga law firm the following summer, Nurse decided to join the local rowing club.
“Growing up, my family was definitely glued to the television when the Olympics were on,” enthused Nurse. “Even though I had never tried rowing, I was well aware of Canada’s heyday in the 1990’s.”
Nurse fell in love with the sport immediately. Her summer pursuit soon transitioned into an activity she was practicing all year.
She continued her four-year degree at Guelph, all the while keeping in touch with the rowing program and her club coach in Mississauga.
“He was very supportive,” added Nurse, “He encouraged me to keep it up.”
Following her final summer of rowing in the Toronto area, she moved to Ottawa to begin her law degree. She continued to compete, now under the banner of her new school.
Nurse’s race results gained her an invitation to attend a camp with the national squad that winter, giving her a taste of the high performance lifestyle of an elite rower.
Not long after, she made the decision to move to the training centre to become a full time athlete.
“My intention was to make the FISU (University Games) team,” Nurse said while smiling. “I thought that was a reasonable goal.”
The law student exceeded her expectations, being selected instead for the senior women’s eight that was set to compete at the World Rowing Championships in New Zealand that autumn.
“It all happened very fast,” Nurse said of her rise within the rowing ranks. “One year I was a novice in Mississauga and a couple of years later I was competing on the world stage!”
To culminate an incredible summer, Nurse, at her first senior competition, owned her first podium, winning a silver medal with her teammates Down Under.
“What an experience!” recalled Nurse, her voiced still laced with incredulity. “That definitely changed my immediate outlook of what was possible.”
With one race, the London Olympics suddenly came into focus.
Less than two years away, a podium finish in 2012 suddenly became a possibility.
Another silver medal nine months later at the 2011 World Championships, which also acted as the Olympic qualifier, not only sealed her status as a legitimate presence on the team, but also made the London podium tangible.
However everything began to derail in the lead up to the Games.
“My back started to become an issue,” Nurse pointed out. “Something wasn’t right.”
The injury was a frustrating setback, but temporary, Nurse was sure. Her body had never let her down before, after all.
Cutting short the pre-Olympic World Cup tour, she returned to Canada for some tests. The results were inconclusive. The law student did not panic. She was certain that these unforeseen circumstances would sort themselves out.
Still, the days marched on with little regard to her delicate predicament.
Eventually the reality of her situation set in; Nurse was going to have to sit out the Olympic regatta.
“Right up until the end, I thought it was something that I would be able to work through,” Nurse stressed. “It was a tough pill to swallow.”
The women’s eight had a brilliant race in London, earning some hardware in the process. This time though, they did it without her.
“It was bittersweet,” lamented Nurse. “I was so happy for them, yet sad that my injury had prevented me from being a part of that crew.”
For Nurse, the subsequent four years took on a heightened significance.
Getting back to the lake following London, Nurse’s outlook had changed, having experienced first hand the fickle flow of misfortune.
Her injury still being an issue, she approached her training one workout at a time. Her daily hopes were being dictated to her through her back.
“In 2013 I never once thought about Rio. I didn’t even know if I would be able to complete the week,” Nurse revealed.
This all changed the following year. In 2014, a new treatment was proposed to her. Nurse signed up eagerly.
“It was nothing short of revolutionary,” she stated with evident relief. “It resolved the issue.”
The experience of dealing with a major setback has given the athlete a different perspective.
“I want to win races as much as I can,” she noted. “One never knows when it could all be over. We don’t always choose to go out on our own terms. Sometimes it is decided for us.”
This is something that makes Nurse attack world cup races, world championship races or Saturday morning workouts, all with the same drive and intensity.
It’s also what makes her such a valuable member of the group.
“I want to be proud of every single performance, whether it’s in practice or in a race,” Nurse reiterated. “It’s about making the most of every single step of the journey, not just the big race at the end.”
Nurse’s impressive medal haul in the last four years is a testament to her revamped attitude, helping to make the women’s eight one of the frontrunners for a podium finish in Rio.
For Nurse, the stars did not align four years ago.
But Brazil is in the southern hemisphere, and a different set of stars hangs over that region of the world.
And now that fortunes in Nurse’s life appear to have realigned, these distinct southern stars may very well follow suit.
Nurse is on the cusp of owning in Rio what she was denied in London. This time she is ready. The stars appear to be ready too.
Hometown Heroes is a series profiling members of Canada’s National Rowing Team. From now until the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the athletes from Canada’s two National Rowing Training Centres will be battling for spots on the Canadian Team. Each athlete’s story is unique. Each athlete’s story will be told.