Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski had a steel plate and 10 screws removed from her right collarbone two months ago, the final reminder of her road bike accident in 2021, six weeks before the Tokyo Olympics where she was to compete with Canada’s women’s eight rowing crew.
“[The plate] didn’t affect my rowing but did when weight-lifting or sleeping,” Gruchalla-Wesierski said. “Quality of life stuff I wasn’t willing to compromise if I was going to continue training to compete [at the 2024 Olympics] in Paris.”
Gruchalla-Wesierski also bruised her hip in the crash and needed 56 stitches to close lacerations all over her body. Lying in a hospital bed, she had flashbacks of breaking her leg 15 years ago in a career-ending ski racing accident.
“I was like, ‘Not again, not this time,'” the 31-year-old told CBC Sports while preparing for her world rowing indoor championships debut on Sunday in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ont. “I’m so close to my Olympic dream. Within 10 minutes, I was trying to find a way to make it happen.”
Gruchalla-Wesierski had collarbone surgery three days after the crash and two weeks later was on an Ergometer, a machine used to simulate rowing without an actual boat. She was on water in Japan three weeks after an orthopedic surgeon told the Calgary native her season was over.
“Truthfully, I don’t know if I would have made it through that injury without going through several injuries prior,” said Gruchalla-Wesierski. “I’m quite stubborn and this is one of the times it paid off for me.
“Luckily, I had a team of doctors, physiotherapists and others who were looking for an alternative solution and that’s when surgery came into the picture. It was the only way to make it [to the Olympics].”
She convinced us she was fit, and her shoulder or collarbone was going to hold up. It was astonishing, powerful and motivational.— Canadian rower Sydney Payne on teammate Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski’s ability to overcome injury
The Montreal-born athlete and her teammates went on to capture an Olympic gold medal, the first by a Canadian women’s boat in 29 years.
Fellow Olympic champion Sydney Payne, who was biking ahead of Gruchalla-Wesierski when the latter crashed midway through a two-hour training session — “I thought she was dead” — marvelled at her teammate’s mental strength to train solo and get into shape to face the world’s best in Tokyo.
“She convinced us she was fit, and her shoulder or collarbone was going to hold up,” Payne said. “It was astonishing, powerful and motivational.”
Rowers can track performance
Nineteen months later, Gruchalla-Wesierski and Payne, who was born and raised in Toronto, will share the arena floor at Paramount Fine Foods Centre at 2:53 p.m. ET. They will compete against each other in the women’s 2,000-metre hybrid race for those aged 23-39.
The live stream of the afternoon session starting at 1:30 is available at CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.
Rowers will see their position during the race on an Ergometer monitor and have a live race tracker on a laptop or external device.
Hosted by Canada for the first time, this year’s world indoor championships will be a hybrid event, with most of the more than 1,600 athletes from more than 70 countries — including two-time Canadian Olympians Mike Forgeron and Phil Monckton — participating in-person in the 500, 2,000, 2,000 relay and Para races while others do so virtually across the world. The competition was virtual each of the previous two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indoor rowing used to be a way for athletes to train through the winter but has become a popular sport on its own with hundreds of competitions held worldwide each year.
“It’s a totally different aspect of the sport,” said Gruchalla-Wesierski, who started rowing at 23. “We don’t get the opportunity often to race at home so that is special. And it’s another opportunity to put myself in a pressure situation, which I quite enjoy and usually thrive [on].”
Gruchalla-Wesierski was looking forward to meeting Olena Buryak, the indoor world record-holder in the women’s 2,000, but the Ukrainian athlete is competing virtually. Her country has lost thousands of people while millions of others have been forced to flee their homes following Russia’s invasion over a year ago.
“We are so privileged in Canada to have so much security and a great lifestyle,” Gruchalla-Wesierski said. “Her country is in the middle of a war and it’s mind blowing she can put so much focus and work into rowing. It’s inspirational.”
This summer, Gruchalla-Wesierski and Payne will race on the World Cup circuit with the women’s eight crew, which welcomed four new members post-Olympics and had immediate success.
Last July, Payne was part of Canada’s second-place finish at the final World Rowing event of the season in Lucerne, Switzerland. Two months later, Gruchalla-Wesierski returned to international competition for the first time since the Olympics, working with Payne and the others to earn world bronze in Racice, Czech Republic.
WATCH l Canadian women’s eight collect 2022 world bronze:
Five years after Payne was among four additions to the women’s eight squad, the 25-year-old is excited to share her experiences with her new teammates.
“It’s always better and more fun when you have a spread of experience and talent brought to the boat,” said Payne, who moved to B.C. at 16 to attend Grade 12 at Brentwood College School on a scholarship, an independent university preparatory boarding school for boys and girls on Vancouver Island in Mill Bay.
This year’s world championships, scheduled for Sept. 3-10 in Belgrade, Serbia, is the main 2024 Olympic qualifier.
“It’s the hardest race you’ll do in your life — harder than the Olympics and way more stressful,” Payne said ahead of her first indoor worlds. “We’ve been working on the mental aspect of our team. I think it’s going to be a huge part for us if we can become one team on one mission [working toward] one goal to bring us through the summer.”
Added Gruchalla-Wesierski: “A lot of fresh faces shows there’s potential for rowing in Canada past what we did in Tokyo. We always talked about that. We wanted to win, not just for ourselves, but hopefully make rowing a legacy for Canadian women.”