Olympic champion grows rowing club in stride

Olympic gold medal winner Lisa Roman is hosting the Head of the Fort Regatta on Saturday, March 19 to help finance a rowing club for young athletes.

It takes years of dedication and rigorous training to realize the Olympic dream.

Lisa Roman was ready. Joined by her Canadian teammates, she awaited the sound of the starter pistol that would set in motion the women’s eight rowing final at last summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. Between them and the podium were 2km of water and five other teams.

It was over in a matter of minutes.


Canada wasn’t favoured to win, but neither were any of the other teams. The pandemic had halted sporting competitions leading up to the Olympics.

“Everyone was kind of a black sheep. No one knew what anyone else had been doing,” Roman said.

Roman was in the bow. In less than six arm-aching minutes, the women were the first to cross the finish line. Their closest opponent, Australia, finished just 0.91 seconds behind.

The high of winning the medal was soon followed by a trip to the airport. Four months later, Roman was back on the waters in her hometown of Langley looking to inspire the next generation.

Last week she spoke to the Current while floating on the Bedford Channel in a short motorboat.

Canadian Olympic rowing athlete is seen with her dog Bullet in a short motorboat. Roman coaches rowers in Fort Langley.

“I want to make Olympians,” she said. “Why not? It’s a great place to row, there’s no reason why we can’t.”

Roman is recovering from a lingering back injury, one she pushed through to race in Tokyo. Although she is putting competition to the side at the moment, she can help others.

“I miss the intensity of training, I really enjoyed that lifestyle. I was in it at that intensity for well over nine years. So it’s just, it’s very different… To say that I don’t miss the training, I’d be lying that’s for sure,” Roman said with a chuckle.

Before she became a world champion, Roman got her start at the University of the Fraser Valley Rowing Club. When she began rowing in 2008, she trained alongside a dozen other athletes. Although the club had a healthy number of rowers, it consistently found it challenging to secure funding at the start of each season.

“It’s pretty tough,” Roman said. “When I started there … other than having a couple [boat] shells, that’s all we had.”

Nearly 15 years later, nothing much has changed at the club, despite having produced an Olympian. Funding it continues to be an issue. The only difference now is that Roman isn’t the one in the racing boat.

In November, after returning from the Summer Games, Roman started to try and build back the program with the school club. Now she coaches seven athletes—most of whom are students at UFV.

Rowing isn’t coordinated through cross-university sports organizations, so the training program isn’t exclusive to any one school. And that’s good news for athletes who wish to train with an Olympian, but bad news for the account books because it means the club isn’t financially backed by a school.

“The [club] does have some equipment,” Roman said. “I mean, some of it is from like the 1980s. So it’s pretty old. It’s pretty beat up. But that’s what they’re using.”

To help pay this year’s boathouse fees, Roman is hosting the Head of the Fort Regatta. The competition had taken a two-year hiatus and will return on Saturday for its 12th year. Two hundred participants are expected to visit Fort Langley for the friendly competition, and raise some money for the club.

There are many competitive opportunities in rowing, but not many rowing clubs. Roman said the sport doesn’t get enough exposure. Her hope is to grow the local program and prepare the rowers for the Canada Summer Games, a stepping stone that eventually led her to the national team.

If the regatta is successful, it will allow the club to cover the year’s expenses to use the Township-owned facilities.

Earlier this year, Roman stood in front of the Township of Langley council asking them to waive facility fees to rent the parking lot and plaza for the regatta. She pointed out that the purpose of the event is to help raise money to pay the club’s lease fees, and the Township connected her to Tourism Langley, which approved a grant to sponsor the event.

“It’s pretty tough on the club, between having to pay the boathouse lease, which is a significant amount of money for a club organization, and only having a small portion of athletes,” Roman said. She doesn’t feel the club should charge the students large fees while they are also responsible for tuition. And Roman isn’t cutting herself a pay cheque. She volunteers her time five days a week. It’s her way to stay connected to the sport.

In a small boat with her dog, Lisa Roman trains rowers in the Bedford Channel

Roman was 17 when she started rowing in 2008. No stranger to physical activity, having been a competitive figure skater for 14 years, she was introduced to the sport during an informal learn-to-row event during her first year of university. The following year, she rowed in the Canada Summer Games. In 2011, Roman was invited to join the Canadian national team. She would eventually earn a rowing scholarship to Washington State University, graduating in 2012.

Roman’s debut at the Olympics at the 2016 Rio Games when the women finished in fifth. Although the team didn’t reach the podium, the Olympic experience wasn’t dampened by a pandemic. The team was in Brazil for two weeks and attended many of the other events.

In Tokyo, Roman recalls having to ready her bags the day before the final regatta because whatever the outcome, they were leaving later that same day.

“The environment was very different compared to Rio, that’s for sure.”

But so was the outcome.

Join the conversation

or to participate.