Airdrie born rower Olivia McMurray left for the start of the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile on October 20. She returned home this week with not one but two medals, including a gold for the first ever women's eight event at a Pan Am Games.
“It was amazing,” said McMurray. “I knew the competition would be harder than it was in April at the qualifiers, but coming home with two medals and such great racing experiences is more than I could have asked for.”
McMurray also won a silver medal in the women’s coxless pair event rowing with partner Abby Dent of Kenora, Ontario.
Throughout the events, the Americans had bested McMurray and the Canadian team, winning gold against McMurray and Dent, and were thought to be the favourites in the women’s eight.
“By the time we were ready to race the eight,” said McMurray. “The [Americans] had beat us in pairs. I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty scared. [But] I thought we had a shot at a medal.”
The race, the first of its kind held at a Pan Am games in history, was not the photo finish that some might have expected. McMurray and the Canadian team led at all 500 metre markers and finished the 2,000 metre race in six minutes and 10.7 seconds. The second place Americans came in four seconds later and Chile finished seven seconds after the Canadian team.
“We just had the best start we ever had. We just found a rhythm immediately,” said McMurray as she recounted the race. “It just felt so effortless and we had a boat length ahead. I thought maybe our [coxswain] was maybe not lying, but saying we’re first and kind of exaggerating to get us excited.”
“I peeked out of the boat I was like, ‘no we are a full boat length’. It was amazing and we had some much adrenaline and excitement about the lead…we knew they couldn’t catch us,” recounts McMurray.
From her position in the boat, second from the front with her back to the finish line, McMurray would have been one of the first members of her team to know they won gold.
“As soon as I felt clear water on the side [of the boat], I knew we got them,” she said.
The Canadian coxswain, the person in charge of the boat’s navigation and steering, was Kristin Kit of St. Catherines, Ontario. Kit won a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with the Canadian rowing team but had never been allowed to compete in a women’s eight event because it had never been held before.
“Seeing how excited she was to come to the Pan Am Games because she had never been allowed to compete before in the women’s eight…it was really special to her there with us,” said McMurray.
“I never thought I’d have a chance to race at a Pan American Games and we won,” said Kit in an article for Canada Rowing. “This will be in my memory and heart forever.”
Each rower on the Canadian team performed in three medal events, and it’s up to the teams coaches to determine who is performing in what event. Each country only brings eight rowers so McMurray and her teams got very familiar with her competitors as the games went along.
“I think having those losses really motivated us,” said McMurray. “[But] we knew we had the eight best women here. I was thinking to myself that I was glad I’m in a boat with these women and not against them.”
McMurray and the others on the team felt almost no pressure before the race.
“We just kind of thought, why not us?” said McMurray. “On paper, they’ve beaten us. But why not us? Why can’t we do this? And then we did.”
The Canadian athletes at Pan Am Games have won 106 medals thus far (as of Nov. 1), with 35 golds, 33 silvers, and 38 bronze medals. The total is good enough for third among all countries competing, behind Brazil (128 total) and the Americans (178 total).
Remarkably, McMurray has been able to balance being an international gold medal winning athlete while also working close to full time with an engineering firm. A lot of the team's members are closer to 21 or 22 years old and are taking gap years in their schooling in order to compete.
“I was still working over 50 per cent of my regular hours the whole time we were training…I really appreciate my employer for granting me the leeway to be able to balance my career and my rowing,” said McMurray.
The rowing season will now ramp down for McMurray. Her home club, the Calgary Rowing Club, has pulled its docks from the Glenmore Reservoir for winter.
For McMurray, there couldn’t have been a better way to finish off the rowing season than a podium finish at Pan Am Games.
“It was amazing to just finish it off on a high note,” she said. “It’s great momentum for the winter.”