Kingston at the Olympics: Jennifer Casson Takes on Tokyo 2020

By Emily Coppella

Jennifer (Jenny) Casson was completely against rowing – at first. She had always been an athletic, competitive person, but after several stress fractures in high school, she was unable to do what she loved: competitive running. It was her brother, who rowed for Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI), who suggested she try rowing. Despite the 5 a.m. practices that deterred her for a while, she decided to give the sport a chance in grade 11. Since 2017 she’s been competing on the Canadian Senior National Team and now, she’s headed to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Photo credit: Kevin Light

We spoke with Casson as she reflected on her very first rowing experience with awe.

“I got into a boat and I was like, ‘This is pretty cool. This is kinda fun.’ And it was so beautiful, with the Kingston sunrise and out on the lake…Honestly, KCVI had a really fun rowing community and rowing environment so that kind of hooked me and I really got along with the coach and my teammates.”

After getting on an ergometer and doing a two kilometre test for rowing, Casson did well enough to catch the attention of some universities. She fell in love with the campus at University of Tulsa and accepted an offer of admission right away, claiming that her angsty teenage self was ready to leave home, especially to someplace as seemingly unexpected like Tulsa, Oklahoma.

But Casson’s rowing journey began here in Kingston. Perhaps it was our freshwater that took her from being the type of high schooler who did every sport just for fun to becoming one of Canada’s best rowers. She claims that being surrounded by three bodies of water in Kingston had a significant impact on her lifestyle.

“You have the Rideau Canal, St. Lawrence, and Lake Ontario and then I also have a cottage on Horseshoe Island…When I was three days old, I was on water. I came out of the hospital, they popped me on a boat and sent me over. So, I’ve been very Kingston, very water since the day I could breathe.”

Photo credit: Kevin Light

Casson grew up boating, sailing, and kayaking, and she believes that simply seeing the crowds of people hanging around the water in Kingston inspires the city to participate in water sports.

“I think when you’re constantly exposed to different modalities to get out on that beautiful stretch of water, you’re just sort of compelled to join the masses and there’s nothing more beautiful than being out there on a summery, shimmery day. That, I think, subconsciously just influences. You either run along the waterway or you get out there.”

Head down to the shores of Lake Ontario and you’ll see exactly what Casson means – a variety of passionate people centered around Kingston’s waters. High school and post-secondary students get out on the lake, along with multiple clubs, resulting in a variety of ages and levels of rowers, including experts like Casson. Casson started rowing at Kingston Rowing Club (KRC) – and she’s only ever rowed out of KRC. She says it’s a place that helped birth some of the Canada’s best rowers, like Will Crothers, Rob Gibson, and Nick Pratt.

In fact, after falling in love with rowing in high school, it was these Kingston rowers that inspired Casson to continue competing. She calls them “Kingston alumni” and she envied them, seeing how they started in the same place that she was at.

“You’d heard all of these stories of their athletic excellence and how they climbed the ladder with hard work up to where they ended up, medalling. To me, that was everything that I wanted as an athlete. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can do that too! I want to do that. I have to learn how to do it so well that I end up on the podium as well.’”

Casson speaks with pride about other Kingston legends such as John Armitage, head coach of the Queen’s Rowing program for 40 years, and the current head coach, Rami Maassaran. Brad Brennan, her high school rowing coach was vital to her athletic journey too. Casson calls him her coach, her reason to continue. He pushed her to go on the national team.

“With all that sort of legacy coming out of such a small boathouse, it really shows, if anything, hard work will get you there and that time and time again, you don’t need the best equipment and the best boats and all these excuses that are fine when you’re feeling like complaining, you just need the best environment to get that motivation intrinsically and hard work. It’s written in history.”

A dedicated support system helps too, and Casson is enthusiastic about the people in her life who motivate and ground her. Her women’s pair, women’s single, and her coach, Bill Marshall, help motivate her. She calls teammate Jill Moffatt her sister. While Casson is more serious and critical in the boat, Moffatt is more upbeat, ready to recognize what they did well and what they can do next. Casson also calls herself a huge family person.

“My mom and my dad are like my rocks of reality. I am a very volatile kind of person, I have a lot of energy and I can go down a rabbit hole really quickly or I can spring off and get over-excited, so my parents always ground me, ‘Jenny, you’re doing that thing where you’re losing your mind, come back down!’”

Casson was a CAN Fund #150Women Recipient this year, a grant opportunity founded by Jane Roos for women athletes to help them afford training and cover living expenses. Empowering women in sports is close to Casson’s heart.

“I love sports for strength and for confidence and for collaboration and teamwork and all the fundamentals to be a better human. I would love to see more girls gain that from athletics. I have gotten so much from sports. It has changed me as a person, it changed my outlook on life, it changed how I approach my days…I think it’s so beautiful to have a backbone of your sisters, your teammates and just the confidence that you, your body did something today.”

In addition to encouraging young women to enter the sport, Casson is vocal about the barriers to getting involved with rowing, especially as it is regarded as a white, privileged sport. She is supportive of Rowing Canada’s efforts to push for more diversity in the community.

As Casson looks forward to the Olympics she’s endlessly proud of the Rowing Canada athletes, the Rowing Canada staff, Kingston, and Canada itself.

“I love wearing the Canadian flag. I love being Canadian and I love being from Kingston. If you would have asked me when I was 18 in high school, ‘How do you like being from Kingston?’ I would have said, ‘No, I want to be from Montreal or Toronto or Paris, someplace cool,’ and now I’m like, ‘Yeah, 613, baby, let’s go! I love Kingston!”

Photo credit: Kevin Light

Read more stories: Kingston Athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics