Sports

When your team wins Olympic gold—but you’re not there

Olympic athletes train for years, some missing medals by milliseconds. Victoria rower Rebecca Zimmerman missed her shot at gold for another reason

By Richard Dal Monte
August 11, 2021
Sports

When your team wins Olympic gold—but you’re not there

Olympic athletes train for years, some missing medals by milliseconds. Victoria rower Rebecca Zimmerman missed her shot at gold for another reason

National team women rowers prepare for training at Rowing Canada's facility on Elk Lake. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Sports

When your team wins Olympic gold—but you’re not there

Olympic athletes train for years, some missing medals by milliseconds. Victoria rower Rebecca Zimmerman missed her shot at gold for another reason

By Richard Dal Monte
August 11, 2021
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When your team wins Olympic gold—but you’re not there
National team women rowers prepare for training at Rowing Canada's facility on Elk Lake. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Every four years, billions of us tune into the Olympics and marvel at the heights of human athletic achievement while accepting, without a second thought, the capricious nature of sport.

We grip our TV remotes and blithely acknowledge that the margin between a spot on the podium and a seat in the stands can be a hundredth of a second in a race or a hundredth of a point in gymnastics competition, that gold and glory can be captured by a last-ditch lunge at the finish line that requires a photo finish to confirm the victor.

But there are other close finishes—and heartbreaks—that happen away from the TV lights and international media cameras.

“In any given sport, on any given Olympic team, there are probably a hundred different stories like this,” says Victoria athlete Rebecca Zimmerman. “For all the people who made it and are visible, there’s probably a hundred people who didn’t.”

Her story is that she almost made the Olympics, missing it by a hundredth, by a hair, or, more accurately, a tiny hairline fracture of a collarbone (not hers) that healed just in time. Instead, she came home alone, the only consolations a Team Canada kit and an upgrade to business class for the nine-hour flight home from Tokyo—and not the gold medal that could have been hers.

The women's 8s train in Elk Lake. Photo: RCA/Kevin Light, submitted


An injury and an opportunity

Zimmerman is a native of Toronto who will turn 31 on Friday the 13th, and has been a member of Rowing Canada’s national team program since 2017, winning silver medals in consecutive women’s 8s world championships in ’17 and ’18. Her spot in the 8s was the stroke seat, the second from the stern, facing the cox and responsible for setting the rhythm for the other seven rowers. She has also rowed for UVic, where she is one semester away from earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

This past March, she sprained a ligament in her back. That’s a serious injury for a rower, and it kept her off the water for almost two months and away from several opportunities to qualify for the Canadian Olympic rowing contingent. When it came time to race for a spot, despite the hard rehabilitation work she had put in, despite the efforts of the team’s physiologist, she was on the outside looking in.

And then, an unexpected opportunity.

Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski, a member of the women’s 8s squad, crashed on a bicycle during pre-Olympic training camp in Strathcona. She suffered a fractured clavicle, bruising, and cuts that required stitches. Zimmerman had been filling in as a spare on the women’s 4s team, but Gruchalla-Wesierski’s injury opened a temporary spot in what’s called the 2-seat—the second from the bow—for Zimmerman. She was told that if Gruchalla-Wesierski didn’t recover in time, she could turn the temporary arrangement into a spot in the Olympic team’s boat in Tokyo.

Rebecca Zimmerman poses at the Elk Lake training facility. Photo: RCA/Kevin Light, submitted.

‘A hundred per cent intention’

“I knew it was an opportunity—and I felt badly, almost, thinking about it as an opportunity,” Zimmerman said, because it meant her teammate and friend might be out of a competition for which she’d prepared for years. “That was an awful thing to happen to her. I know, and everyone knows, the work it takes to get to that point.

“But this is kind of my job to fill in as spare and I knew that I would be doing a disservice to myself and to the rest of the girls in the 8s if I didn’t go in with a hundred per cent intention… Every time I’m in the boat, I need to think that I’m racing at the Olympic Games because that’s the only way I can be a hundred per cent ready if I end up there.”

On Canada Day, she and the rest of the paddlers, their coaches, and support staff flew to Japan while Gruchalla-Wesierski, who’d had surgery to insert a pin into her collarbone, stayed behind on Vancouver Island to continue intensive rehab. On July 10, after receiving medical clearance, she joined the team in Sagamihara, south of Tokyo. The two athletes took turns in the boat during training over the next three days and were told if the team’s speed was the same with either one, the seat would go to the original choice: Gruchalla-Wesierski.

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On July 16, that decision was made. Zimmerman was going home.

The next day, she said goodbye to her team at the gates to the Olympic Village—they were just moving in—then flew home July 18 following a night alone in a hotel.

“It was really emotional for the whole group. We’d been through a lot together,” Zimmerman said, wiping away tears, her voice tightening. “Our team is quite close and when you spend all day, every day together working to a common goal like that, you become very connected.

“It was emotional saying goodbye to everyone, knowing I had contributed so much to their Olympic journey… and having to have it end in such an abrupt way, it was difficult.”

She flew to Victoria by way of Vancouver, then headed straight to a ferry with her boyfriend to go to Mayne Island, where she slept for the better part of 24 hours. A couple of weeks later, the Olympics she had expected to be part of kicked off.

“It was hard at first to watch it, and there’s definitely a bit of a disconnect—I was just there, I was just in Tokyo,” Zimmerman said.

But then she watched Canada’s rowers in action.

‘A bizarre mix of feelings’

“I thought I would have a lot harder time watching my teammates race, and I’m still a little shocked at how OK I feel. I’m very sad, but… I don’t regret it. I don’t have any negative feelings towards it,” she said, drinking from a black Canadian team water bottle adorned with a gold maple leaf and Olympic rings.

Watching her teammates race for—and win—the gold medal on July 29, “I was so, so happy for them and so gratified because I contributed significantly to them winning.

“But I really could say that I was heartbroken at the same time. And it was a very bizarre mix of feelings.”

Michelle Darvill understands. A former international rower, she’s a Canadian national team coach and was part of the group that made the decision to send Zimmerman home despite the fact “she’s part of our team.” She said they wanted to keep her as a spare but couldn’t due to Olympic quotas for athletes in the village.

“Rebecca was all in and I have 100 per cent respect for her,” Darvill said from her home in London, Ont.

“Ten people crossed the [finish] line,” she said. “Rebecca was in that boat when it crossed the line.”

And if there was ever any doubt, Darvill said, you need only look at the 2-seat oar as the Canadian boat won gold—unlike the others, it had two names on it.

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When your team wins Olympic gold—but you’re not there