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Airdrie-raised rower races her way to qualification for Pan Am Games

“It felt very much like we’d already done the work and all we had to do was execute it. It was such a relaxed, confident race because we knew we had the speed. We just had to show it one more time and the gold would be ours.”

A George McDougall High School alumna row, row, rowed her boat – not gently down the stream, but quickly across the lake – all the way to international gold last month. 

Rower Olivia McMurray, 30, and her colleague Kailani Marchak finished in first place of the women's pair finals at the 2023 Pan America Games qualifier in Concepción, Chile on April 17. Their speedy time qualified Canada's boat for the 2023 Pan Am Games in October, which will also be held in Chile. 

While the accolade doesn't necessarily mean McMurray is guaranteed a spot in the upcoming Pan Am Games, (she still has to be named to the national team later this year) she said it was thrilling to qualify Canada for the international regatta, and to secure her first gold medal at a race outside of Canada.

In addition to her first-place finish in the women's pair, McMurray also competed as a member of Canada's women's 'four,' which also qualified for the Pan Am Games by finishing fourth in that event.

“To win the pair was just incredible,” said the former Airdrie resident, who now lives in Calgary. “It’s my first international medal, and for it to be gold was just crazy. It felt like such a [culmination] of the hard work our team put in, especially in the pair. It was the cherry on top of all the work we’d done leading up to it.” 

Perhaps ironically, McMurray said the race in which she and Marchak won the gold medal was fairly uneventful. After a strong start saw the Canadians take an early lead, they simply held their pace error-free until they crossed the finish line.

“We just went out there, raced our own race, tried to get out front and then the last half of the race, we knew that if we didn’t make any mistakes, we’d get the gold medal,” she recalled. “It felt very much like we’d already done the work and all we had to do was execute it. It was such a relaxed, confident race because we knew we had the speed. We just had to show it one more time and the gold would be ours. 

“As soon as we hit the red buoys [we knew] to just keep it clean and cross the line.” 

McMurray, who graduated from George McDougall in 2010, has been rowing for 13 years. Previously a competitive dancer, she said she figured her athletic days were over when she enrolled in the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering after graduating from high school.

However, shortly after starting her university degree, she was recruited by the U of C's rowing team due to her height. After trying out the sport on the Glenmore Reservoir, she quickly developed a passion for it.

“It took three months to get into it and then I’ve loved it ever since,” she said. 

During her time with the Dinos' rowing club, the former Airdronian represented the U of C at the Canadian University Rowing Championships in 2011, 2012, and 2013, with a highlight being a fourth-place finish in the women's pair in 2012. 

Since graduating from her engineering program, McMurray has lived in Calgary and worked as a process engineer in the oil and gas sector.

But she's continued to row competitively, representing either the Calgary Rowing Club or the Alberta provincial team at regattas. 

She also won bronze at the National Rowing Championships in 2012 and silver at the Canadian Trials in 2014. That same year, she represented Canada at the Commonwealth Rowing Championships, placing third in the mixed-eight event and fourth in the heavyweight women's pair event, helping Canada finished third overall in the medal standings.

Last winter, McMurray and one of her teammates moved to Victoria so they would be able to train on the water year-round in the lead-up to the Pan Am Games qualifier in Chile. She added she was training upwards of 20 hours a week to adequately prepare for the trip to South America. 

“We did our training and tryouts and stayed there once we’d made the team, so we have been away from home for three months and balancing working remotely with an increased training load,” she said. 

In the likelihood she'll be on the plane back to South America next October, McMurray said the regatta in Chile was a great way to prepare for the upcoming multi-sport event, considering the course she was racing on was the same lake the Pan Am Games' rowing competition will be held on.

McMurray added she was impressed by both the course in Concepción and the level of professionalism at the recent qualifier.

“They had the most beautiful course I’ve ever rowed on,” she said. “Not a single buoy was out of place. We had a fancy automatic start system that holds your boat and then drops out of the way when they beep the starting gun. There were so many volunteers there, and media everywhere. We had such incredible video footage, which was helpful to watch back our preliminary races.

“I was blown away by the level of investment in the test event, so I’m so excited because it will be even better in October.” 

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