We caught up with the gold medalist to talk about her life after the Games
Avalon Wasteneys was sitting in a second year UVic anthropology course when the class discussion sidetracked to the Olympic Games. The psychology major contributed to the conversation, and her peers discussed the Games from the distant perspective of spectators. None of them realized that back home, on Wastesney’s dresser, was a beautiful blue box containing her Tokyo 2020 Olympic gold medal.
“For the most part I try to keep a low profile around campus and around Victoria just because I know what I’ve done,” said Wasteneys in an interview with the Martlet. “It doesn’t need to be my entire personality.”
While many UVic students may not remember what they were doing on a Friday in late July this summer, Wasteneys recalls the thunder, the wind, and her crew’s shaky warm-up before the women’s eight Olympic rowing final.
“I remember lining up and suddenly everything hit me and I was the most nervous I have ever been in my life,” said the 24-year-old. “But that told me I was ready to go.”
In lane two at the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo that day, eight Canadian rowers and their coxswain made history. The nose of their boat jumped out ahead at the start of the race and Wasteneys knew she and her crew would capture the gold medal. In live coverage of the final, Wasteneys could be seen overcome with emotion and exhaustion as her team celebrated becoming Olympic champions.
“When we crossed the finish line it was like the realization, the surreal realization, that we had actually done what we said we were going to do,” said Wasteneys. “What I was feeling in the moment was immense relief.”
Three months after the closing ceremonies in Tokyo, UVic’s campus is once again filled with the bustle of the fall semester. Wasteneys walks around campus attending her courses and enjoying the anonymity of being just another UVic student. Also, without the constant rigorous training, Wasteneys says she now has the energy to enjoy other outdoor physical activities.
“I really like being in the outdoors and going cycling, camping, trail running, surfing, and doing all those different activities that are very classic Vancouver Island.”
Now in her fourth year of study and having achieved a lifelong dream, Wasteneys has embraced a quiet confidence in herself. She says the experience of training for the Games changed her outlook on life and she has forgone ego in exchange for bold vulnerability.
“[The Games] taught me a lot about confidence and not just a fake confidence. The confidence that it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay for me to have my voice be heard,” said the talented rower from Campbell River. “It’s taught me a lot about vulnerability and how important…it is to express your dreams and your goals to other people.”
This unshakable confidence was something that Wasteneys’ coach Michelle Darvill worked on with the national team throughout their preparations for Tokyo. It was the first time Wasteneys had trained under a coach that focussed so heavily on ensuring the culture permeating the team and the sport was healthy, and who implemented a holistic training approach. The team held multiple meetings with sport psychologists, and together they wrote mission statements for how and what they wanted the team to build.
“This [preparation] was just really a decision to rebrand our culture because we had had a lot of challenges with culture the year before.”
Former national team coach Dave Thompson left the team after an investigation by Rowing Canada concluded he had engaged in behaviour that constitutes bullying and harassment.
“We had kind of had a pretty difficult time with that,” Wasteneys said. “But having that team culture to step back on was really important and it kind of made it in the end, it felt like every challenge was a chance to unite and support each other.”
When asked about the militant and often cutthroat reputation of rowing, Wasteneys reflected on the ways in which the sport needs to change to support its athletes. “You need to have space to be yourself and to grow and love yourself and love your teammates and the sport itself.”
This self-discovery has led the Olympian to let go of her fear of failure and to find enjoyment in the mundane aspects of her sport. Although she has decided not to row for UVic this semester, Wasteneys will return to training with the national team in January with her sights set on Paris 2024.
For now, however, she enjoys training on her own terms and is working towards finishing her degree and adding a minor in Anthropology. Also, she has found an exciting opportunity to be a role model for young kids in sport.
“I’ve been getting messages from people [saying], ‘you’ve inspired my kids to stay in sport’ or ‘to try rowing’,” said the gold medalist. “And that is really what it’s all about for me.”