The newest installment of our Distinguished Alumnae Series features a chat with Lorna Shultz Nicholson, former high level competitive athlete with the St. Catharines Rowing Club and more recently, award-winning author. Lorna fondly remembers learning to row at SCRC and has an interesting story to tell about her journey.
Her most recent novel centers around some of those experiences, and the St. Catharines Rowing Club features prominently in the story.
This interview is timely in that Lorna will be returning home to visit the club during the Mother’s Day Regatta and will have the opportunity to talk to young athletes about her experiences and her book.
From where did your inspiration to write a novel grounded in rowing come? How or why did your experiences in this sport captivate your literary imagination?
Sports has been a theme in many of my books but before WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT, I’d never written about rowing. So…it was about time. I rowed in high school for West Park Secondary School, the first year that females were allowed to row in the CSSRA regatta, and I fell in love with the sport. After I stopped rowing, I coached at St. Margaret’s High School in Victoria and at the University of Victoria. With so much experience in the sport, it was only a matter of time before I wrote about it. Many of my own experiences, including being cut from the National Team, are embedded in the fictional plot that surrounds Holly, the main character. There is one main plot in the story, however, that is a direct result of an incident that happened when I was coaching for the University of Victoria. The tragedy of the incident has been eating away at me for years and I think this book was a way for me to express those emotions and grief that I pushed down.
What was the process in creating the characters? Do you have a character with whom you identify the most?
When I create characters, I think a lot about them ahead of time and jot down notes. I knew I wanted a strong female lead, who had a goal and a dream. I wanted to showcase a female athlete so that readers could understand what they go through to be successful. It’s easy to watch athletes perform on television, but I wanted to show a behind the scenes story so readers could see the hard work that goes into that final race. Holly is my main character. The character of Alan is a composite character of coaches I mentored with when I was coaching, (especially Al Morrow and Alan Roaf, thus the name), and I wanted him tough but kind. I knew I couldn’t write from his point of view in a Young Adult book, and I thought long and hard about how to get his side of the story on the page. That’s where I came up with the verse sections. It was my way of giving Alan a voice. I won’t say much more about that as I don’t want to give spoilers. I think I identify most with the character of Holly, because her situation of being cut was definitely something I went through.
St. Catharines Rowing Club is featured in this novel; what does the Club mean to you in this regard?
It was at the St. Catharines Rowing Club where I won my first medal and it’s also where I got cut, learning a valuable lesson. So…the club gives me great sport memories. My first medal was in the coxed four at the CSSRA regatta in 1976. The elation of winning was such a high. It was a new high school sport for females, and we were coached by Bob Young. I was in a boat with Michele Romak, Jenny Dmytruk, Karen Toll, and our coxswain was Cindy McLaurin. I’m sure these are names that are still recognized although some have married names now. Even after all these years, Michele was a huge help with this novel, as we are still in touch to this day. Rowing in St. Catharines has given me so many lifelong friendships. The SCRC was also where I got cut from the National Team, and that was in 1977. I was in a coxed four with Kathy Lichty, Gail Cort, Andrea Schreiner, and we were coxed by Lesleh Anderson. More names that are synonymous with the SCRC. Lesleh was also a huge help with the novel, reading it a few times for me and once in a really, really rough draft, which is kind of her. In 1977, we had trained all summer, twice a day, but I wasn’t the one who travelled overseas. I remember both of those experiences and they have played a big part in the novel. Sport is full of wins and losses, and I experienced both at the SCRC, giving me wonderful emotions that I can now write about.
Could you delve into your personal experiences at SCRC?
I consider the St. Catharines Rowing Club my home club. Yes, I rowed for a few other clubs, but St. Catharines is my home. I started rowing for West Park and I also rowed for the St. Catharines Rowing Club under the legend, Rudy Wieler. I have so many memories of riding my bike to the boathouse, getting the boat on the water, and rowing up and down that course. Plus, going to the “Black Bridge”. Every time I’m back in St. Catharines and driving over the bridge, I stare at the course. It was my home away from home as we spent so much time there. Of course, I can’t forget running grandstands either. Or of racing in regattas. The Henley is still one of my favourite memories.
Do you feel that your experiences of rowing prepared you for any aspect of writing novels, or in a wider scope, adult life?
This is a great question. I do a lot of school visits and I always tell the kids that rowing prepared me for writing. With rowing and writing, there is work to be done behind the scenes. You don’t just miraculously win. The training is gruelling and painful and is hours and hours of time spent on the water and in the weight room. And that is like writing. Only now I spend hours and hours in a chair and don’t get the benefit of exercise. I have to get that elsewhere. Lol. Now I have to sit down to write instead of sit down in a boat. Rowing also teaches discipline, and you need that to be a writer, especially in the early draft phase. The words are sometimes difficult to find, and you must persevere. Then there are the revisions. Sometimes a coach makes you do something over and over again, and that is like writing. You revise and revise. I’m also lucky that I was cut like I was. I can say that now. It taught me how to deal with rejection and the writing world is full of rejection. So, yes, rowing prepared me for writing novels, in many, many ways.
What is the most important lesson of your novel?
Don’t give up.
What is the most important lesson you would like people to learn from the sport of rowing?
Rowing is more than the success of the race, those wins and losses, it’s about experiencing emotions, and more importantly, it’s about the lifelong friendships.
What’s on the horizon for you with regards to your writing?
I have three books coming out in the fall of 2022:
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share the insights into my novel and talk about the beautiful sport of rowing. Oh, and by the way, WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT has been shortlisted for the Writers Guild of Alberta R. Ross Annett literary award, and that makes me happy because now more people will know about the sport of rowing and the SCRC!
Jim Minards, a long time member and builder of the SCRC has been recognized with the 2021 Rowing Canada Aviron Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the sport of rowing.
Jim Minards first joined St. Catharines Rowing Club in 1949, and since then has played a key role developing Henley Island into what it is today.
Serving as the Henley Island Facilities Manager, Jim was responsible for the building of the offices, medical building, and multiple other structures. In the 1950s, he developed a St. Catharines high school rowing program that started with 14 athletes and expanded to include 15 schools. It would become the foundation of the strong St. Catharines high school rowing program that exists today.
Jim has also contributed to the local, provincial, national and international rowing communities through sitting on various committees and serving in many different roles, including as President of St. Catharines Rowing Club, President of RCA and Design Assistant for the Montreal Olympic Rowing Venue.
“On behalf of Row Ontario and the entire Ontario rowing community, congratulations Jim on receiving this prestigious award,” said Andrew Backer, Row Ontario CEO. “Countless numbers of athletes, coaches, umpires and passionate rowing volunteers alike have benefited so much as a result of you and your colleagues seeing your vision out for Henley Island in the 1950s. Thank you!”
Before the Tokyo Olympics, Kristen Kit was a household name in the St. Catharines Rowing Club community. Now, she needs no introduction. The newly crowned Olympic Champion coxed the women’s eight to a gold medal last week, succeeding in their intention to “redefine excellence”. I spoke with Kristen a week after the performance that dominated the race course, and had rowers and sports fans alike cheering all across Canada. Kit’s intentionality and awareness in the boat has transferred to her reflections on the race that will not be forgotten by Canadians anytime soon.
What was the most notable moment of this whole experience, from qualifying to standing on the podium?
We were a process-focused crew, and our coach Michelle Darvill made sure we remained true to that mentality. If I had to choose one moment, it would be crossing the finish line with those eight women, knowing that there were a lot of other people who helped us get there. We had a spare that came in quite late, and then her seat got taken back by Kasia after she healed from her injury. Our spare Becca Zimmerman was very selfless; she trained just as hard as anyone else and she obviously couldn’t race with us because there’s only 8 seats. Of course, our coach Michelle and Carol Love were both so integral to our crew, but they weren’t at the starting gates with us. When we crossed the finish line and won, it was about us, but also all the people that helped us get there. We were able to put down a performance that we were proud of and felt it represented all the people that worked us to get there.
You said in another interview that when you were locked in the starting gates you imagined that every person who has been a part of your rowing career was in the boat with you. What does it mean to you that you have also affected so many athletes throughout your career, especially now?
Before I came on to the scene in the women’s 8+, there wasn’t a pathway for coxswains. You had to try and get past Leslie, and there was no one that was able to do that. Both Michelle Darvill and Al Morrow made space for me and other people when we started coming up. I’ve already had coxswains reach out to me saying that they saw the race, and they are now inspired to pursue the higher level of competition, and that’s amazing. It’s still going to be hard, but a pathway exists now.
On a larger scale, rowing is an amateur sport, it’s not mainstream like soccer, and I hope that young boys and girls see a race like that and an opportunity to try it themselves. I hope that it helps rowing across Canada, both in keeping people involved in the sport, and trying it for the first time. Participation is not just about trying to go to the Olympics, but about increasing opportunities to experience the sport.
Can you walk us through that last 1000m? It was so dominant, and the margin just kept improving. When did you know you had it?
It wasn’t the last three strokes that I knew we were going to win. We had been rowed through for the first two races of the week, first by the Kiwis in the last 10 strokes. Romania had a fantastic sprint in the other race, and even though we were on pace for a world record, they walked through us. So the threat of being walked through was very clear in our minds and I didn’t trust it until the last three strokes. That being said, I always knew that we could do it. We had been going really fast all year, and with the speeds that I was seeing, it was clearly the fastest boat I had ever been in. The culture of the group was quite good. I knew that if we had our best race we could do it.
Can you talk a bit more about your team’s goal to “redefine excellence”?
We had a really neat situation when we came back from the initial COVID lockdown in July 2020. We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to train, and our coach Michelle was very big on culture and developing her rowers not just as athletes but as people. This group was quite tight, all 17 of us, some of whom ended up in the 4. Our 8+ came up with the idea that we wanted to not just be the fastest women’s eight at the Olympics, but ever. We got pretty close to it, we didn’t quite get to that, but we got close. We wanted to redefine the event and the boat class for Canada, and do something that people had never done before. Winning wasn’t our goal. Our goal was to go beyond that and have the absolute best race we, or anyone else, had ever had.
That being said, we were at the Olympic Games, which is an outcome driven event, so it could have been easy to get away from that goal. But I think we raced well because we focused on the process, and every woman was trying to take her best stroke at the moment. For us that meant redefining what that meant for us individually and as a crew. We wanted to redefine what a women’s crew could do, redefine what a women’s eight could look like, and it was both for us, Canada and the world.
Who was the first person outside of the crew and team that you shared this moment with?
After the media session, I remember being perched up against a concrete wall, and our coach Michelle came up to give me some food and water because I hadn’t really eaten yet. We facetimed Carol and that was a moment I got to sit with my two coaches and run through the race; that was pretty special.
COVID protocols dictated that we couldn’t really share the moment with many people. I am so grateful that the Japanese opened their country to us. We were pretty much in a rowing lockdown for a month: masks, N95s, we weren’t allowed to venture off on our own. We certainly shared the moment as a crew, but we didn’t even get to see our coach until after the medal ceremony. We saw her on land, but we didn’t get to meet up with her for about an hour after the race.
When everything was over, I did call Carol Love, who had worked with us extensively as well. She had come out at the end of January until June. She had a great impact on us, as she stroked the first women’s eight for Canada when women were allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time in 1976. It was a very full circle moment to have her with us. She was very hard on us, because she believed in us. I remember one time she came up to us after a race this spring and when we were debriefing, she told us, “You know, we were doing these numbers in 1976. You can’t do this anymore. You are better athletes, you have stronger equipment and training than we did. You have to find it within yourselves to be better than this”. She was a really big part of this process.
What was the most difficult part, individually and as a team, in preparing for the Games?
COVID. We all had to get over that hurdle. We were very fortunate to race, I can’t say it enough that the Japanese were so kind to welcome us in the midst of a pandemic. We were grateful to just get to race, and it could have been called off at any time. As soon as we got back together, there were new challenges to face. But these women always saw them as solvable problems, and that made us much more resilient as a boat. For example, on July 23, we found out that our heat was being pushed up to the next day because a typhoon was coming in. Such a change might have messed with other crews heads: we had just done pieces, we weren’t in a day-before-race-day mentality necessarily yet; it was a significant change. Everyone said that these sorts of situations had been popping up for the last eighteen months, and we were ready to race. We learned that it doesn’t have to be perfect, you just have to be present.
How did you prepare yourself to be the best leader you could be?
Something that I was very focused on was being the best coxswain for the crew. It’s not about me, but about what the rowers and the coach needs. A large part of my process was checking in with the women, getting the calls they needed to hear, checking in with Michelle and watching video. We also used a lot of sports science to look at how specific calls were making the boat go faster.
On a more personal level, I was trying to be very present. As a coxswain, you have to always be thinking two steps ahead, while staying in the moment. As we got into racing, I was very committed to being sharp and reading situations that gave my crew the best possible advantage. For example, it was still somewhat chaotic despite it being a regatta of smaller size. There was some bounce in the water, and every coxswain is always looking for the best water in which to do their warmups. Looking back, there were alot of times where if I wasn’t on top of my game, the crew could have been a little rattled. But they trusted me to get them through that situation.
What’s next for you?
I’m an avid cyclist, so I’m going to do some mountain biking and see some friends. We were under strict COVID protocols since last winter, I didn’t go for Christmas this past year. So I’m going to do the things I haven’t done for the past, well, 12 years. I’m part of the RBC Olympians program, and last year I suffered a concussion. They were incredibly supportive, they continued my funding, offered resources, and even had individuals reach out personally. I have some RBC talks coming up soon which I’m looking forward to.
Overall, I am really enjoying what we accomplished. I’m feeling very happy and grateful to my crew for trusting me and to my coaches for giving me that opportunity. I’m open to continuing, but I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do. This week has been a lot of media sessions. It’s been great to share our story, because the more people hear about it, the more people are hopefully inspired to try rowing, or at the very least, think “why not me?”. I’m just an average kid from St. Catharines, I didn’t have a huge sporting family growing up, and it was really a question of me seeing what’s available. Even though it was a 1% chance, I asked myself, “why not me?”. So I just really hope that other people are able to learn that lesson. It can be for school, career, or their personal life. It’s great to be able to share bits and pieces of our story with everyone.
Lauren Kelly is the director of Social Media for the St. Catharines Rowing Club and in her senior year at the University of Notre Dame. She is majoring in history and is a captain of the rowing team. Her debt of gratitude to the St. Catharines Rowing is very slowly being repaid through her efforts on the club's social media.
St. Catharines Rowing Club
The St. Catharines Rowing Club has a long tradition of competing at the highest level in the sport of rowing.