Argonaut Olympian Issue #11
We are honouring our past and present Olympians by documenting their achievements and establishing a permanent archive. An Argonaut Olympian is an athlete who has been a competitive member of the club prior to competing at the Olympic games. Until 1972, athletes represented their club as well as their country at the Olympics. In 1976 a national team system was developed in Canada, thus ending club representation at the games. Other than footnoting this difference, there is no other discrepancy between the two systems for the purpose of this exercise.
The Argonaut Rowing Club has fielded more Olympic crews than any other club in North America while that system existed with a total of thirteen entries. Many more members have competed in National Team programs and have been winning gold medals at the Olympics and World Championships with consistency for nearly three decades.
This is the eleventh of the series and features our first Paralympic medalist, Victoria Nolan. As sport has evolved to become more accessible, so has rowing, and the Argonaut Rowing Club is proud to be a leader in this regard with our fully accessible docks and facility as well as running one of Canada’s best Para Rowing programs. Compiled non-chronologically, Victoria joins our other athletes that have donned the double blue and gone on to compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Victoria Nolan – 2016 Rio Paralympic Games
As her guide dog Alan rests peacefully at her side the gentle waves lap the new 290-foot long docks at the Argonaut Rowing Club and you can feel the transformation that this is a special time in the storied history of the club. The Junior crews scurry about, laughing as they gather into boats with their respective crews – and the tone of the morning has become a perfectly pastoral stage for Victoria Nolan to reflect on her remarkable career in rowing.
A converted teacher not content to only instruct, but to show her students, herself, and the world what she is made of in a journey she couldn’t have imagined would go so far.
So, she set off, at 35 years old, on the adventure of a lifetime in Para Rowing. It has been said, Champions are not born; they are forged in human foundries with a special alloy of mettle, spirit, and heart.
This is her story.
The hook, Argos LTR program
Argo para-rower Bill McGuire has influenced and inspired many during his 15 years at the Argonaut Club and he saw something special in who he calls Ms. Vickie after she completed the Learn to Row program at the club:
“... I was in a boat with The Mumfords (James & Linda) and we were a person short for our 4+, Alyssa Vito was our coxie and poor Vickie ended up getting in a boat with us. I remember this because Vickie was in the boat twice and the next time we rowed as a crew was the following weekend at The Dons – Top & Bottoms regatta.
I shall never forget that day for a variety of reasons – we did very well at the regatta; one of the fastest boats of the day; people were impressed with our blade work and the boat flew – the only change was none other than herself; Vickie went from LTR to winning her first race.”
So echoes Alyssa Vito’s voice who later spent many hours coaching and working with her:
“Working with Vicky in the early days was really great. What was so interesting and amazing about Vicky was that as she learned to row you could simultaneously see her learning to trust herself. Being visually impaired meant that within the first year alone she was forced to learn things that most people take many years of rowing to learn - the ability to FEEL the boat, to listen to the oars, to listen to the run of the boat, to hear the bubbles under the shell. That true ability to feel yourself swinging with your partners and to trust your body not to fail you as you drove your legs, swung your body, and crept back up that slide in unison with your teammates.”
Many of the best talents out there are difficult to coach and their potential is squandered. Victoria, known as the ‘metronome’ for her impeccable timing, was the opposite as Alyssa goes on to say,
“Vicky always had the great ability to transition to new rowing partners seamlessly. Something that is difficult for most rowers, and particularly those that are visually impaired. She has always had that ability to trust in herself and remain calm and composed through even the most difficult of times or transitions. She made me a better rower, a better coach, and a better person and we can all learn many lifetimes worth of lessons from her.”
Argonaut Para rowers from left standing: Bill McGuire, Mike Cooper, Victoria Nolan holding Rio Paralympic Bronze medal, coach Megan Lampkin; from left seated: Para rowers Samantha Walsh, Bernadette Slingerland. Photo taken on Argo docks, August 18, 2019.
Vickie was in the rare position of already having children while competing on a rowing national team. This wasn’t without its advantages though as Bill McGuire tells us,
“The reason that I remember that race so vividly is Vickie’s kids were there to watch their mother race – I did hear the eldest say “You Rock Mommy” which says it all – out of the mouth of babes, EH! You couldn’t put your finger on it but you knew that there was definitely something there.”
Interview with Victoria Nolan
GS Now that you have officially retired, for the last time, let’s go back to the beginning. How did you hear about Para-Rowing and what inspired you to join Argos when you decided to give it a go?
VN I wasn’t into sports as a kid. I was feeling isolated and depressed because of my vision loss. After I had my kids I struggled with this depression and decided I needed to do something to get me out of the house. I felt something physical would be beneficial. At that time CNIB was promoting sailing which directed me to water sports but I wanted something more active. After a web search I discovered Argos and found they offered rowing for people with visual impairments. I took Learn to Row and then met Pepito who was on what was the adaptive program at the time and had his sight on competing in Beijing. He inspired me to consider competing at a competitive level.
GS Who coached and influenced you at the Argonaut Rowing Club in the early years?
VN My original coach was Alison Sheard and then I was coached by Alyssa Vito (coxie) and Rebecca (Orr) Thomas was a great support on my journey. Alyssa was a big part of my development as she trained with me in the double.
GS I think of your 2010 WRC race in New Zealand as a watershed moment. To that point, your crew had enjoyed success and was in the hunt internationally but did you have any idea that you could win the World Championships and set a new world record at the same time?
VN Yes that was a huge breakthrough moment. At that time Great Britain was the team to beat. They usually won by large margins and they seemed unbeatable. Our goal was to make them nervous and when we won our heat and set a world record we did make them nervous. We also learned that we could do this. In the final we were moving along in third place and when we passed Germany to move into second our coxie said “we can do this but we have to go now”, so we did and moved through Great Britain to beat them by about a half second. It was the most exciting race of my life.
Canada charges down the course with Victoria Nolan in bow seat at the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
GS How did this regatta change your crew, and your goals from that point on?
VN It gave us the confidence to know we were in the mix. The Paralympics was the goal, so winning was great but we knew there was more to come. The next year we won silver at the World’s and felt comfortable in that position going into the London Olympics, a little less off the radar. We felt much more respect after the gold medal win and were taken as a legitimate contender.
GS Being a vision-impaired rower, you have challenges few of us can understand. In addition to the incredible mental and physical strain of rowing, you have to contend with not being able to see how your blade looks on the water or if there are any boats around you in a race. How do you compensate for your lack of sight and what is it like rowing without seeing what is going on around you?
VN I don’t know what it’s like to be able to see your blade so it doesn’t feel like I’m missing out. You deal with what you have. I focus on the sounds, it’s an inner feeling and when the coxie tells me to correct something I remember the feeling and try to replicate that.
GS You have been called the ‘Metronome’ due to your impeccable timing. What do you credit this to?
VN Definitely the sounds and rhythm of rowing. I took dance when I was young and understood the feeling of rhythm. I could get on the erg and found I could hold whatever rate I was told with consistency.
GS You have competed in three Paralympic Games, what was your best and why?
VN Definitely Rio because that is where we won the bronze medal. That’s the race where I pushed myself the most. If felt like we sprinted the last half of the race. It was right down to the wire and almost caught the US for the silver medal. The London Games though were amazing as we felt the Paralympics had equal footing in terms of media, attendance etc. with the Olympic Games.
In Beijing we got to compete in the opening ceremonies so to walk into the Bird’s Nest with 100,000 people cheering was an incredible experience.
GS You have thrice retired and come out of retirement twice so far. What made you change your mind and can we say you are officially retired for good?!
VN I retired after London to be home with the kids. In coming back it felt like I had unfinished business not yet having won a Paralympic medal. When I returned the second time I felt like the tank wasn’t yet empty to I wanted to keep going. I also wanted to keep the program alive and stay as long as I could to get the next generation of rowers on their way.
GS How has your family participated in your success, often there is an unknown backstory of incredible support from relatives and friends.
VN My husband’s support is the only reason I could do this. When I started and was told I needed to row 4x per week and I needed drives to Argos. I didn’t think that was possible as the kid’s were only two and four at the time but when I told him, he said, “you have to do it” This evolved into more days and trips overseas for as long as a month at a time. He and the kids always encouraged me and said I have to do this. Of course there is always guilt but my husband said you have to be happy because we’re happy when you’re happy.
GS Over the years you have experienced several incidents of discrimination with your guide dog. Can you say things have changed for the better?
VN Yes, there has definitely been improvement but there is still a long way to go. It’s like Para Rowing, or anything to do with disabilities; it comes down to more awareness and more education. It has improved but there is a long way to go. I think sometimes it might be a fear of dogs, or in restaurants, for example, it has been drilled into them that dogs aren’t allowed for health reasons but people in general people are becoming more aware for sure.
GS What prompted you to write and publish your book “Beyond Vision” in 2014?
VN I actually started writing things down as therapy. I would write things down to get them out of my system. People encouraged me to write a book but I didn’t think there was a story there. When we won the gold medal in 2010 I decided there was a story here. I got to go around and do motivational speeches and people told me that I need to get this story out. I worked on the story for a few years and showed it to an editor for help. The editor reviewed my book and asked how long I had written for, which I hadn’t, because he found little to edit so few changes were made.
GS Argos recently had a successful Para Rowing give-it-a-go session and we had a great turnout. What advice can you give to the legions of aspiring athletes who hope to attain the success you have achieved?
VN There are so many things I’ve learned such as the more difficult it is, the more rewarding it will be. I’ve learned to take the tougher route because that is the road to success. Para rowing is a community; it’s good for your mental health to be part of something and to be able to achieve things. When you have a disability, there are some things you just can’t do. Now there is more competition, more categories and more opportunities to row. The future looks bright in Para Rowing!
The After (rowing) Life
So after three rowing careers rolled into one person, Victoria assures us she is definitely retired for good and will again have more time with husband Eamonn, her two children, and guide dog Alan. But retired from rowing is hardly retired, she has her new career - broadcast journalist as the co-host of AMI this week on Accessibility Media television. Check out her show on channel 888 on Rogers, and channel 48 Bell Fibe TV. Check out her book Beyond Vision: The Story of a Blind Rower on Amazon. From the Argosy, well done Victoria!
- 2018 World Championships PR3 Mix 4+ 4th
- 2016 RCA Para Athlete of the Year
- 2016 Rio Paralympic Games PR3 Mix 4+ Bronze
- 2016 World Cup 3 PR3 Mix 4+ Gold
- 2015 World Championships PR3 Mix 4+ Bronze
- 2012 London Paralympic Games PR3 Mix 4+ 7th
- 2012 World Cup 3 PR3 Mix 4+ 6th
- 2011 World Championships PR3 Mix 4+ Silver
- 2010 World Masters Games PR3 W 2- Gold
- 2010 World Championships PR3 Mix 4+ Gold
- 2009 World Championships PR3 Mix 4+ 4th
- 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games PR3 Mix 4+ 6th
- 2007 World Championships PR3 Mix 4+ Bronze
Medal Count - Rowing Events – 2016 Rio Paralympic Games
| Great Britain (1st)
GRANT SOMMERS 2019