A Return to the RowOn Champs 25 Years in the Making
Community News/ Oct 18

A Return to the RowOn Champs 25 Years in the Making

Sometimes life comes full circle.

Ottawa’s Melanie Coulson experienced a ‘full circle moment’ of her own earlier this year when she returned to the Row Ontario Championships 25 years after she last competed in the annual regatta. In the very same city, on the very same course.

“Last year I came as a parent chaperone for our junior program, and I was like ‘oh I remember this race’,” said Coulson. “And I wasn’t thinking at that time that I would race in it this year. We were all telling our stories about competing at Row Ontario’s, and I was pulling out some old stories about when I last raced it in 1998. When I made the senior women’s team this year and competed again, everything kind of came around full circle.”

Coulson competed in the senior women’s eight with the Ottawa Rowing Club at the 2023 RowOn Championships on the South Course in Welland, winning a silver medal in an exciting race. This rowing season has been a culmination of sorts for her, as she dove head long into competing on the Ontario regatta circuit after returning a few years ago from a 20-year break from the sport. The Aurora, ON native got her start in rowing as a grad student at Carleton University and developed a passion for rowing in those early novice days.

“When I was in grad school, a friend of mine from BC suggested I give rowing a try because he thought I had the power for it, so I went out for the team,” said Coulson on her introduction to rowing. “The novice season in Ottawa is not an easy one. It’s pitch black, it’s usually cold, and you’re trying to figure out all the nuances of the sport. But I was hooked from the start, it’s such a great use of power to move a boat. I loved it right away. The camaraderie of the team and the crew was great as well, they really drew me to the sport.”

After her first foray into rowing during the fall season at Carleton, Coulson began training with two-time Olympic medalist Alison Korn, who was a national team member at the time and just so happened to be in the same journalism program. Korn was looking for training partners during the winter months and Coulson was happy to oblige. The duo would meet in a small gym with two ergs and follow legendary rowing coach Al Morrow’s training programs, no easy feat for a novice rower, in the early mornings or in-between classes. Coulson credits Korn and that time in her life for instilling the love of the process of training, and the realization that the more effort you put into the sport the better results you’ll get back.

That following spring, Coulson rowed in the summer programs with Brock University, where the still novice competitor initially impressed the coaches with her fitness, thanks to months of training like a national team athlete. She soon joined the women’s eight crew, which was coached by primarily by RegattaSport’s Gregg Loucks, and competed in several high-level events both nationally and abroad. The crew gelled together quickly and performed well, placing second at both Women’s Henley and the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, and claiming first in the Canada Cup Regatta. They also competed at those 1998 Row Ontario Championships.

“That Brock crew in 1998 is so memorable to me,” said Coulson. “That was an amazing crew, everybody in the boat just bonded together. We were a bunch of crazy women who trained hard and competed hard. We were a really disciplined crew and we won the eight’s race at Row Ontario’s. I can still remember the excitement of being there in that boat. It was a great, fun crew to be a part of. I think that boat was where I really found myself, even though I was 27-28. I really feel like that’s what kind of shaped me as an adult.”

“Rowing didn’t really fit into the life of a journalist schedule-wise, so I just kind of let it go at that point,” said Coulson on what precipitated her break from the sport. “I also got married and had kids and moved on to other activities. But I would often have dreams of rowing, like I would wake up at night and I would be back in a boat. So, I kind of knew there was unfinished business there and I might come back to it at some point.”

In the intervening 20 years between her stints in rowing Coulson stayed active. She kept training and ventured into running and biking, which led to competing in triathlon and running six marathons and 12 half marathons. She eventually returned to the site of her rowing roots when her family moved to Ottawa. She started hearing good things about the masters program at the ORC, which included former national team rowers, and she was soon itching to return to a boat. She knew she wanted to come back as a competitive masters rower and compete in regattas, so she resumed training on an erg until she felt she was in ‘rowing shape’ and ready to contribute to an already-thriving program at the club. Her first time back in a boat came in 2018, and after 20 years away it was a special moment.

“For my first time back in a boat, I was put into a pair with Rachel Inch,” Coulson recalls fondly. “It was an evening row in the summer we made that boat fly. The pair was always my favourite boat so that was a good re-introduction. It was a great return; we row right under Parliament Hill which is just beautiful. I think I was still floating when I got home, and I said to my husband I need to keep doing this. This is so good for my mental health.”

Coulson’s husband D’Arcy, himself a rower in university, loved the idea that she return to the sport. One of their first dates was to watch the OUA Championships together.

After returning to training and getting comfortable back on the water, Coulson was ready to race competitively and even had a bucket list item in mind. She had always wanted to race at the Head of the Charles, which she didn’t get to do in her earlier rowing career. She crossed it off her list in 2018 as part of an ORC masters women’s 8+ crew. They came away with a second-place finish.

Coulson competed as a masters competitor on the 1km regatta circuit for several years and coming into 2023 had a new goal, returning to 2km racing. She began rowing with the morning training group at the ORC and delivered solid times in seat races, which led to her qualifying for the senior women’s eight, which led to her competing at the 2023 RowOn Championships again after 25 years.

“That was a great eight race. Western gave us a great battle, it was a back and forth, and Guelph was moving on us from behind. Someone yelled out ‘not today Guelph’, which I loved,” laughed Coulson. “It was an incredible experience to be back, it had poured rain just before we pushed off the docks, so we were all soaked and right before the race the sun came up. There was real grit in that race. It was amazing to return to Row Ontario’s, it really was. It was so cool.”

Coulson enjoyed her return to 2km racing and calls her new crewmates ‘amazing women’ and laughs about meeting some of their parents throughout the year who were the same age as her. She’s had a full race calendar in 2023, also competing at the ERA Regatta, Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, Head of the Madawaska, Head of the Welland and Head of the Trent in a variety of different boats. There’s one more race on her 2023 schedule as she’ll be racing in the single at the Head of the Fish in Saratoga, NY next week. She’s also passed down her passion for rowing to her two sons, as both have joined the sport. Her youngest son Jack is a U17 rower at the ORC, while her older son Euan is in his first-year rowing at Brock University. Coulson hopes she can provide an example of the type of longevity you can have in the sport and has also set a new goal for herself after observing some other inspirational masters rowers on the regatta circuit.

“We have an amazing adult learn to row program in Ottawa, I know other clubs have them too,” said Coulson. “It’s so important to try new things and rowing is such a beautiful sport and its low impact. The crew and the camaraderie are great, and you can pick it up at any time and make it work for you. In September, I was at Head of the Welland and there were some rowers who were in their 70’s still racing, which was amazing. I looked at them thought, that’s my new goal, to still be racing in 20 years.”