Bonus Retrospective: The History of Lightweight Rowing
In honour of our 50th anniversary in 2020, Row Ontario released a seven-part retrospective series on the history of Row Ontario and the Ontario rowing community. The retrospective series was a celebration of all the volunteers, coaches, umpires, athletes, parents, regatta organizers and many more who worked so hard over the years to build the sport of rowing in our province.
This is a special Bonus Retrospective on The History of Lightweight Rowing.
Check out the Row Ontario 50th Anniversary page on our website for more information on our 50th anniversary and to see the rest of the retrospective series.
Lightweight rowing made its debut on the Olympic programme at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta with two men’s events (double sculls and coxless fours) and one women’s event (double sculls). In those inaugural Games for the lightweights, Canada fielded boats in two of the three events. St. Catharines’ Wendy Wiebe teamed with partner Colleen Miller in women’s double sculls to place seventh, while the men’s coxless four, with Ontario athletes Dave Boyes, Jeff Lay, and Brian Peaker along with New Brunswick’s Gavin Hassett, captured the first Olympic medal in lightweight rowing for Canada by coming in second place. Since the 1996 Games, those three lightweight events have been contested at every Olympic Games to date with Canadian male and female lightweights competing at each Olympics. They’ve won three more medals in that time, with the men’s coxless four (Iain Brambell, Jon Beare, Mike Lewis and Liam Parsons) and women’s double sculls (Tracy Cameron and Melanie Kok) claiming bronze in 2008 and the women’s double sculls (Lindsay Jennerich and Patricia Obee) earning silver in 2016. A reconfigured rowing programme at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will see only the men’s and women’s double sculls contested among the lightweight events.
While the lightweights made their debut on the Olympic stage in 1996, lightweight rowing has been around long before that. Rowers of smaller stature who wouldn’t be considered ‘heavyweights’ have always been involved in the sport. Throughout the early years of the sport in Ontario from the late-1800’s to the early 1900’s, there were no weight classes at competitive regattas. All the categories were open and the best rowers, regardless of size, would compete together. As the popularity of the sport increased and more people began to row, it became more obvious that rowers of larger physical stature had a competitive advantage over smaller rowers. They were able to generate more power in their strokes and therefore propel their boat faster.
There isn’t much known about the exact reasons why and how lightweight rowing started to be contested at Ontario regattas, but it’s safe to assume it was done to create more racing opportunities for lighter rowers who struggled to compete against the heavyweights. The first lightweight event to be contested at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta took place in 1906. In what was dubbed the ‘Junior Four 140lbs’ category, the Don Rowing Club won in a time of 8:33 over a distance of one mile and 550 yards. The Junior Four remained the only lightweight event contested at Henley until 1911 when the Senior Eight 140lbs category was added to the programme. Over time, more lightweight events were added to Henley, including a 150lb category, which made its debut in 1925.
Not only were Ontario rowers some of the first to compete in lightweight rowing events in Canada, they were also influencing the lightweight rowing system in the United States. Joseph Wright, a legendary rower from the Argonaut Rowing Club and two-time Olympic medalist in the men’s eight (silver 1904, bronze 1908), was hired to coach at the University of Pennsylvania after retiring from his competitive career. Wright had seen lightweight rowing in action at Henley and other regattas and knew that there were many enthusiastic and capable lightweight oarsmen attending U.S. colleges and universities who were in need of competitive opportunities. Wright proposed introducing a 150-pound class to U.S. collegiate rowing, which attracted immediate interest in collegiate rowing circles. A 150-pound race was scheduled for May 12, 1917, on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, however it was postponed due to the First World War. Lightweights officially made their debut in the U.S. college system in 1919 in the men’s eight.
Eventually lightweight rowing gained more popularity, and more lightweight events were added in other regattas across Ontario, Canada and around the world. By the 1950’s there were 135lb, 145lb and 155lb categories being contested at the Canadian Henley each year. The sport of rowing was becoming more organized internationally around this time as well, and the first World Rowing Championship was hosted in 1962. Lightweight rowing didn’t make its debut at the World Championships until 12 years later in Lucerne, Switzerland. Three lightweight rowing events were contested at those World Championships, the men’s single, men’s four and coxed men’s eight. Those World Championships were also significant because it was the first to feature women’s rowing. Lightweight women’s rowing however didn’t make its debut at the World Championships until 1984 in Montreal as a demonstration event. Future world champions and St. Catharines Rowing Club products Wendy Wiebe and Diana Sinnige would compete in Montreal and place third in the lightweight women’s eight.
The first two medals ever won at an official Lightweight Rowing World Championship belong to Brian Thorne. The St. Catharine’s native won a silver in the lightweight men’s single in 1979 and bronze in the same event in 1981. At those 1981 World Championships in Munich, Germany, the Canadian lightweight men brought home another medal as Toronto natives Edward Gibson, Jim Relle, Patrick Turner and Tim Turner also won a bronze medal in the lightweight men’s four. Throughout the rest of the 1980’s, Canada would remain competitive in the lightweight events and bring home several more medals. Don Rowing Club members Robert Haag and Cam Harvey won a bronze medal in the men’s double in 1986, while David Wright continued Canada’s strong showings in the men’s single by claiming a silver in 1987. Canada’s lightweight women had a big breakthrough at the 1987 Worlds in Copenhagen, Denmark, as Toronto’s Heather Hattin and Edmonton’s Janice Mason won gold in the women’s lightweight double. Hattin and Mason crushed the competition in the race, winning by almost five seconds over second-place Belgium. The victory was also record setting as it was the first gold medal ever won at a World Championship or Olympic Games by Canadian women’s rowers.
After two medals in 1987, Canada would be shut out of medals at the Lightweight World Championships in 1988 and 1989 but would bounce back in a big way at the 1990 World Championships in Tasmania, Australia. Ontario natives Wiebe and Brenda Colby won the bronze medal in the lightweight double, while the women’s lightweight four featuring Sinnige, Jill Blois, Rachel Starr, and Colleen Miller claimed the gold medal and set a world record in the process. The fours team was so impressive that they were one of the five runners up for the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s most outstanding athlete(s). Two years later in Montreal the lightweight women were at it again winning three medals, one for every lightweight boat class contested at the event. This time around, Wiebe claimed the bronze in the single, Mississauga’s Michelle Darvill teamed with Miller to take home the silver in the double, and the fours crew with Blois, Renata Troc and Argonaut Rowing Club members Nori Doobenen and Laurie Featherstone won bronze.
The following year in Racice, Czech Republic, the lightweight rowing team had their most successful World Championships to date. They won four medals (three golds and one silver) and won medals in all three women’s lightweight boat classes for the second year in a row. Darvill won her first World Championship gold in the women’s single, while Wiebe also won her first World Championship gold by teaming with Miller in the women’s double. The women’s fours team of Doobenen, Starr, Tracy Duncan and Peterborough’s Maureen Harriman claimed the silver behind Great Britain. The men’s coxed lightweight eight also had an outstanding race winning the gold medal by just under two seconds over second-place Denmark. The crew consisted of St. Catharines natives Dave Boyes, Christopher Cameron, Peter Sommerwil and coxswain Pat Newman, London’s Brian Peaker, Ottawa’s Jeffrey Lay, Saint John’s Gavin Hassett, Robert Fontaine and Bryan Thompson. The gold medal was the first ever for Canadian men’s lightweights at a World Championship event.
Wiebe and Miller continued their dominance the following two years, winning gold medals in the lightweight women’s double at the 1994 World Championships in Indianapolis, USA and the 1995 World Championships in Tampere, Finland. The run of three consecutive world championship wins in the same event remains one of the most impressive feats in the history of the Canadian rowing.
Since the debut of lightweight rowing at the Olympics in 1996, there have been many more impressive lightweight rowing performances by Canadian athletes both domestically and abroad. Some of Canada’s most successful rowers have come from the lightweight category and the success of Canada’s lightweight rowers rom the early 1990’s in particular remains a high point for the sport in Canada. Lightweight rowing has a decorated history in Canada and throughout the world and will be an integral part of the rowing landscape for many years to come.
Wendy Wiebe and Colleen Miller – Library and Archives Canada
Joseph Wright Sr. – Canadian Sports Hall of Fame
Heather Hattin – Library and Archives Canada
Lightweight Men – London Sports Hall of Fame