In 2011, Sarah Black ended her under-23 age-class rowing career in golden fashion in Amsterdam, helping Canada win the women’s eight gold medal and later having a boat named in her honour at her home base, the Ottawa Rowing Club.
Then she disappeared, quite a feat for a 6-5 university graduate who’s a proud Canadian.
It wasn’t an injury or suspension that kept her from recording any international results in 2012. Instead, she was a rookie on the powerful Canadian senior women’s heavyweight rowing team, which was exclusively focused on the women’s eight for the London Summer Olympics.
Black was on the outside, but training hard, learning and waiting for a break, which never came. She was relegated to watching the Olympic rowing on television and celebrating the Canadian women’s eight silver medal from afar.
“From the start, I knew I wouldn’t make the (Olympic team) eight. The calibre of the girls was outstanding. The girls were much older than me and my goal has always been 2016 (Summer Games),” Black said during a recent visit to her parents’ Ottawa home. “I felt excited to be a spare.
“It was a good training motivator. I had done every workout they did and every kilometre they did. I do want to do it when my time comes.”
Black, who likely is the tallest female in international rowing, is aiming to compete at the 2016 Summer Olympics at Rio de Janeiro, and that mission is off to a good start.
During her first world senior women’s rowing championships at Chungju, South Korea, she was a double medallist: silver in the four and bronze in the eight, which was contested in front of 30,000 spectators. Black sat in the bow seat in the four and had the added responsibility of steering the boat.
It was an extra-special experience for Black. Not only did she celebrate her 24th birthday on the day she won the silver, Aug. 30, but she was also one of five Ottawa Rowing Club members on Canada’s world championship team, and four of them won medals.
Cristy Nurse of Georgetown, Ont., who is studying law at the University of Ottawa, also garnered silver and bronze medals in the four and eight. Carolyn Ganes of Saskatoon also was part of the women’s eight, while Rosie DeBoef of Victoria was a spare on the team of sweepers (stroking with one oar).
Perth’s Kate Goodfellow, also a U of O student, was the other medal winner. She helped Canada earn silver in the women’s quadruple sculls (each rower uses two oars).
“There’s nothing like this. It’s pretty special. I didn’t expect to be in two races. It was a nice reward for all the training,” said Black, who has been practising in the national team environment since she started attending the University of Western Ontario (now Western) in 2007. “I impressed myself. I know how hard we trained. We expected a lot from each other.”
Black, who graduated in June with a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and religious studies after six years of interrupted studies at Western because of her full-time commitment to rowing, had only entered the sport by chance and chose to stay in Canada to develop her career.
When Black entered Grade 9 at Elmwood School, it was natural that she try basketball in the fall because of her height. However, after school friend Clare Funstun told her about rowing and a persuasive talk with her mother, Sheila, Black gave it a shot in the spring.
The Elmwood rowing program lasted only one year, the one in which Black attended the private girls’ school, but she was motivated to move onto the Ottawa Rowing Club.
“I was never good at basketball. I played it in Grades 9 and 10 and went to OFSAA (the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations’ high school championship) once, but I didn’t enjoy it as much,” she said.
“But I loved the sensation of moving across the water and pulling in unison. It’s unique as a team sport. I was OK at it and I pursued it to see how much better I could get. My mom encouraged me to try something different.”
U.S. universities such as Cornell and Columbia took notice of Black, but she didn’t like the idea of leaving a country that had started to invest in her as an athlete.
“I wanted to support my country,” said Black, who also won World Cup bronze medals in the eight this season at Sydney and Lucerne, Switzerland. “If I stayed, the switch to the national team would be a lot easier. Western coach Al Morrow is a former national coach, and, if I didn’t go to Western, I believe it would have been a lot tougher transition (to the national team).
“The U23 national team was summer only, but Al (helped) me train winter and spring with the national team. I was surrounded by the best. It was intimidating at first, but helped me more than anything else. These girls were Olympians, medallists. You can’t beat that for training partners.”
Martin Cleary’s High Achievers column appears bi-weekly on Wednesdays in the Citizen. If you know an athlete, coach, team or builder you consider a high achiever, contact Martin at martincleary51.