Kristen Kit, left, with coach Michelle Darvill. SUPPLIED

Kristen Kit guides eight to first

Less than 48 hours after winning a gold medal in the women’s eight at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, Kristen Kit was greeted by her parents, Jerry and Janice, at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

“It was so funny because I have four or five bags, so I’m not sure they saw me behind my bags when I first got into the airport,” the 32-year-old St. Catharines native said. “It was really emotional, especially coming home, and I haven’t seen them in over a year. It was nice to see them and have a gold medal to bring home.”

Kit’s parents have been a big part of the rowing journey for the St. Catharines Rowing Club and University British Columbia athlete.

“They drove me to the rowing club at 4 or 4:30 in the morning and they have been with me every step of the way.”

All of her work and that parental support culminated in a wild celebration when Kit and her teammates crossed the finish line first in Tokyo.

“You’ve probably seen the video that I was celebrating quite a bit. I had quite a few people ask me about that moment and it was really raw emotion and it was quite a passionate moment,” said Kit, who coxed a Canadian four to a bronze medal at the 2016 Paralympics and the women’s eight to silver medals at the 2017 and 2018 world championships.

“We have had so much come at us the last 18 months and not just the pandemic. Our boat has had crazy injuries and I had a pretty serious concussion in May of last year. I still have the concussion symptoms going on that I have had to manage over the last year. It was really challenging.”

But in the end, completely worthwhile.

“With so much going on in our boat, crossing that finish line that celebration that everyone saw was a celebration of the last 18 months, the last five years, the last 19 years,” Kit said. “As you know, I had to work really hard because the women’s coxing seat in Canada was very hard to get and I did it.”

Also going through Kit’s head at the finish line was the pride she felt in her teammates—Susanne Grainger, Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski, Madison Mailey, Sydney Payne, Andrea Proske, Lisa Roman, Christine Roper, and Avalon Wasteneys.

“Every time I made a call, they responded with their legs but also their hearts and it was that patient boat persistence that I was celebrating with the women.”

Kit and the crew were confident despite finishing second to New Zealand in their heat and second to the Romanians in the repechage.

“We were leading coming into the last 500 and we got rowed through in both races. We had a little bit of fire in us because we were mad. We don’t want to get rowed through and we are not a crew that gets rowed through. There was quite a bit of feistiness but we were confident.”

That confidence was fueled by the crew’s speed in training, its training partners [the Canadian men’s four] and all the people supporting it.

“The nine of us were on that start line but there was probably over 100 people supporting us directly that got us to that start line,” Kit said. “It didn’t really feel like we were on the start line alone—our training group, our coaches and the 1992 group [women’s eight] that won the gold medal in Barcelona.”

Many of the 1992 crew reached out to the Tokyo crew in the year leading up to the Olympics, as did Marnie McBean, Canada’s chef de mission in Tokyo and a member of the 1992 eight.

“Kathleen Heddle passed away earlier this year and she was the driving force of that group. Someone said to me the other day that that she was The Franchise,” Kit said. “Stories about her were shared the evening before our final and I knew when those stories were shared with us that we were going to win.”

No one was more important to Canada’s eight than head coach Michelle Darvill, a three-time world lightweight champion and a member of the 1992 training group.

“She had such a fantastic and positive influence on the group. She got us to focus on ourselves whether we were introverts or extroverts and whether we like colour or don’t like colour,” Kit said. “She encouraged us to be our own diverse selves and we were really good athletes because of that.”

Kit and her crewmates are hoping their victory will resonate for years to come.

“We talked about it as a group of continuing the legacy of the 1992 group and of the 2008 men [Olympic eight champs] and we are really hoping that this will have a strong impact on Canadian rowing and not just women’s rowing,” she said. “We are hoping that we will inspire rowers across Canada and even athletes across Canada because we are not a normal eight. We are not a normal group of athletes.”

It’s a group that defies description.

“We are all a bunch of athletes who have weird stories, we have a bunch of transfer athletes and we have athletes like myself where it has been a long time coming to this moment. The main thing we have talked about is why not you and why not us? We hope to help Canadian rowing and inspire the next generation.”

The excitement of winning gold has yet to begin for Kit.

“I am still kind of in shock. I woke up [Friday] morning and I thought to myself ‘I think something happened yesterday. I think we won a medal.’ That we are Olympic champions still hasn’t set in.”

After the medal presentation and media sessions, Kit and her crew spent a lot of time sharing their victory with their supporters back home.

“It was really important that we do that because a lot of our friends and family are at home and normally we would be with them celebrating,” Kit said. “We couldn’t do that but it was really amazing that the CBC and RBC both had attaches in Tokyo and they were able to get people in the country to help us connect with our friends and family back home. It was amazing and they did a fantastic job of helping us connect and share our stories.”

When that was over, the team kicked back and relaxed.

“We partied a bit, for sure,” Kit said with a laugh. “I think I got about two hours of sleep and then we started the trip home.”

She will be in St. Catharines for two days and then she will head back to the national training centre in Victoria, B.C.

“I am going to get a cheeseburger with my parents because as a coxie I have to weigh in. Then there are no other real plans.”

With the next Summer Olympics only three years away, Kit hasn’t made up her mind yet on what her future holds.

“We talked about it as a group and I think it really depends on what Rowing Canada does with the coaches.”

They all want Darvill back.

“It is hard to find a coach like that and a lot of us are hoping there’s a chance that she will consider continuing. The coaching situation will have a big impact on whether a lot of us continue.”

 

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