Kingston at the Olympics: Kristina Walker Takes on Tokyo 2020

By Emily Coppella

Although Kristina Walker has done most of her competitive rowing for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, she grew up on a small farm on Wolfe Island, was a member of the Kingston Rowing Club (KRC), and continues to believe that when Kingston’s waters are smooth, it’s one of the best places she’s ever rowed. Since 2018, she has been a member of the Rowing Canada National Team and has rowed all over the world, making this compliment particularly special. Walker is continuing to perform on the world stage as she rows to the top international sporting event, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Walker was first introduced to rowing in her final year of high school at Loyalist Collegiate and Vocational Institute (LCVI). Although the small group of novice rowers only rowed for about a month, the feeling of being on the water lingered with her. At the time, she was involved in cross-country and track, later being recruited to the University of British Columbia (UBC) for those sports. UBC offered a novice rowing program that she signed up for during the first week on campus, and now she’s a full-time rower headed to compete at the Olympic games in the women’s four.

Nearly every summer since her competitive rowing began, Walker has returned to Kingston and the Kingston Rowing Club. She continues to praise Rami Maassarani, the head coach from Queen’s, who played a significant role in her professional career and truly cultivated her enjoyment of the sport. Four months out of the year, Walker would row Kingston waters and train for the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. She trained in a pair with her partner, Jenna Adams, under Maassarani for two summers. The pair would row at least every day, sometimes twice, on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Today, Kristina Walker tells us she is still passionate about the unique rowing experience Kingston offers.

“It’s kind of a cool contrast because you can get some great rowing spots in Kingston but then it’s also one of the best places for sailing too. That’s kind of a contrast since [rowers] like flat water and [sailors] like wavey water, and wind. Sometimes in the summer it can blow up in the middle of the day but that’s why we go out at 5 am. There were a lot of mornings where, if the water was super flat, we would go out to Lake Ontario and just go for a super long row along some of the Thousand Islands. It’s gorgeous. When the water is actually flat, it’s one of the best places to row that I’ve ever rowed.”

Clearly, despite Kingston’s epic sailing legacy, rowers also find Kingston waters cater to their sport. Walker recognizes that Kingston has a rich history of producing excellent rowing talent.

“Even for this Olympics, three of us [rowers] are from Kingston and then another additional one went to Queen’s. I think a lot of that has to do with a team culture and organizational culture. A big part of that at Queen’s and at Kingston is that I think they have a vision of excellence and always want the rowers to be their best selves. It doesn’t matter if you’re a novice or an expert.”

She recalls summers in Kingston when highly experienced rowers sat in the same boat with her when she had only just learned to row. Everyone was seen as equal in the local rowing community, meaning those at higher levels could teach beginners, and even professionals could grow by working closely with novice rowers.

While the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the idea of community all over the globe, Walker turned to routines and behaviours to stay disciplined and prepare for Tokyo 2020. She found it helpful to focus on goals, but also to simply love the process. Throughout the pandemic, learning to love the journey and appreciate each moment has been critical.

“That’s been a big part of this year, just enjoying rowing and knowing that it’s a privilege and an honour, especially in times where other people aren’t able to pursue sport or pursue their love or their passion in something. We have the opportunity as Canadian rowers to go and do that. I think it’s really important to realize how grateful we are for that. There’s no better feeling than sitting in a boat and making it go fast. That’s a big motivator for me, too.”

Walker has been busy with more than just training over the last year. In 2021, she launched a podcast interviewing people who have achieved success in their profession or sport. The idea stemmed from a conversation she had with one of her teammates. Walker was explaining her love for podcasts but also her frustration that when listening to them, she often had questions of her own that she wished the podcast host would ask. She wanted to be in control of those kinds of passionate conversations.

“I was also thinking about how I’m so lucky to have been around such amazing people the past few years – and my whole life – and how cool would it be to share some of their insights and their knowledge and also give me some wisdom too, especially going into the Games this summer…The next day I went out and bought the equipment because I was like, ‘I don’t want to second guess this, I’m just gonna go do it.’…[The guests] have all been so inspirational, and a lot of wisdom has been shed on me which, if nobody listens to them then that’s okay because at least I learned something.”

The podcast has featured the success stories of 13 guests so far, including multiple Olympic medallists Tessa Virtue and Rhian Wilkinson. And while Kristina Walker may be too humble to admit it, she’s already her own success story. With numerous accolades rowing for the UBC Thunderbirds and winning silver for Canada in the double sculls in Shanghai, she has earned her place representing Canada at the Games this summer. It seems fitting that she hails from Wolfe Island, a place surrounded by the very waters she loves so much.

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