Pulling through the pain

Local rower on Olympic track

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Bonnie Reynolds was nowhere to be found.

The team from Salt Spring was competing in the 2018 Canadian Secondary School Rowing Association’s national competition in St. Catharines, Ont. when Reynolds, one of the senior girls on the team, disappeared somewhere on Henley Island. The small island holds nothing but the St. Catharines Rowing Club, and a small grove of trees. Eventually, with help from team members, coach Stacy Mitchell was able to track Reynolds down.

“She kept disappearing,” Mitchell said. “I was like ‘where the hell is she?’ I was getting stressed because of the timing. All the girls were saying, ‘Oh she’s over there in the trees.’ There’s one tree on Henley Island, and there’s Bonnie, underneath the tree.”

Reynolds grew up on Salt Spring, amongst the trees. She never considered sports to be an avenue for her; her interests lay elsewhere. Her goal was always to get an education that would help her work to protect the environment in a meaningful way. She is starting her second year as a political science major at Brock University in St. Catharines, with the goal of eventually going into environmental law.

She is also training to be at the top of a sport, with hopes of representing Canada at the Olympics.

“I didn’t see this as being my future at all, honestly,” Reynolds said while at home on the island this summer. “I saw myself pursuing political science, and pursuing environmental law after my undergrad, but I didn’t actually see doing sport in the picture. Finding myself here is mind-blowing.”

As a way to keep active in high school, Reynolds took to rowing. She describes herself as having long limbs and a good aerobic capacity, which translates well to rowing. As soon as she got on the water, her potential as a rower was evident. Her performance at that national competition in 2018 was enough for the representatives from Brock to spot her skills. She was offered a place on their rowing team, and moved to Ontario at the beginning of the 2018 fall semester to start training.

It wasn’t long after she started at Brock that she realized she had the potential to reach the pinnacle of the sport. By November, she took part in Rowing Canada’s NextGen scouting program, qualifying for the program with her two-kilometre indoor rowing score. NextGen is a pre-Olympic scouting program that identifies athletes with the potential to stand on the podium for Canada. It looks at athletes who are four to eight years out, and gives them special training and attention as they are groomed to the elite level.

“It means that she gets more support from the Rowing Canada coaches when she’s at Brock, and she gets things like physiotherapy,” Mitchell explained. “Her training is a bit more intensive so she meets the standards that are in place. Then she gets to do things like the national rowing regatta, the speed orders and the tryouts . . . It’s a higher level of support through it, and it means that her practices and potential are quite high.”

Reynolds does not get time off. In the fall season. Her alarm rouses her at 4 a.m. for water training. After hours on the water, she is off to classes. Training continues in the gym with weights in the evenings before it starts over again.

“Usually it’s still dark out,” Reynolds said. “A lot of times we train under the moonlight. We’re in this dark course. We have to put lights on the end of the boats so we don’t crash into each other.”

Winter training involves hours on the indoor rowing machine, as well as cross training in the gym. Her summer schedule has her on St. Mary Lake nearly every day, with running, weights and cycling as cross training.

“In rowing you can’t really take a break because you lose your fitness so quickly,” she explained. “When you’re already at an elite status, as soon as you take a couple days off your fitness drops. There’s not really a break. There’s downtime, but not a break.”

At the elite level of the sport, rowing becomes more than a competition of who can row the fastest. It is more about who can endure the most pain. Pain of that intensity was not something Reynolds had experienced before competing at university. During high school, she saw fleeting moments of pain, but never really understood what it meant until she trained for hours on the stationary rower one day.

“I was competing with another girl from Brock beside me, as well as all the other lightweight women in the room, but we were ahead by quite a lot. We were pacing each other, and by the time I reached 800 metres left to go, I started sprinting. I experienced more pain than I ever have in my life,” she said.

“My legs seized from the lactic acid. I couldn’t even finish, I was just going with my arms. Thankfully, I had enough of a lead that I still got silver, but I think what that experience taught me was that no matter how much pain I’m in, I am still going to be able to finish the race.”

Reynolds looks to meditation as a way to get through the pain. She finds it easiest to think of the pain as a form of adrenalin, and to use it as motivation to get to the finish faster.

“When you’re going to a race, it is inevitable that you’re going to experience more pain than you ever have doing anything else. You really have to get into the mindset that you’re strong enough to handle the pain, and that the pain doesn’t scare you,” she said. “If you’re strong enough to tell yourself that the pain will all be over once you’re done and that it’s worth it to go through the pain in the moment, then you can be successful. That is what success is in rowing.”

Though Reynolds is training under the auspices of Brock University over the fall and winter months, Mitchell said that the rower will still be representing her hometown at competitions and tryouts.

“She almost didn’t go to Brock, because there were not enough trees,” said Mitchell.

“She’s a Salt Spring rower. They give her back to me for all the championships, which is really nice,” she added. “I think what they recognize in Canada is that it makes a big difference for the smaller clubs . . . It means a lot to actually represent the club that you came from. Bonnie’s pretty Salt Spring-based. She loves it here.”

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