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By Michael Boriero

Local Journalism Initiative

Gavin McKay was sitting on the edge of his seat Sunday evening, as he watched one of his former Aviron Knowlton athletes, Gabrielle Smith, book a spot in the final of the women’s double sculls event in Tokyo.

“I was watching, and I was glued to the television. Everything that goes on there, you feel tingles on the back of your neck. You’ve got your heart up in your throat, it’s pretty exciting. I just wish my cheers would pass through the television to Tokyo,” said McKay.

Smith and her teammate Jessica Sevick will compete for gold at 8:18 p.m. Tuesday evening, according to McKay. The 46-year-old told The Record that it was an unforgettable moment, and he knew that if anyone could handle the pressure, it was Smith and Sevick.

“Our sport is not easy at all from a physical standpoint, but to deal with that,” he said. “She's there with her teammate, Jessica, and both of them are just great people and they have a strong value set, and I think that at the moment they were really leaning on each other.”

McKay is the high performance head coach of L’Association québécoise d’aviron, the province’s rowing association. He met Smith in 2012, after she participated in the Row to Podium Program in Montreal. The program aimed to attract strong athletes.

They worked together for six years, attending several international competitions. McKay said he knew she had a legitimate chance at making the national rowing team. She has always been willing to put in the work, he explained, which separated her from other athletes.

“What became very clear is one, she is brave enough to take on a new sport, and also smart enough to recognize that she has the necessary talent and from that point forward she needed to make a large enough effort to make it happen,” McKay said.

When he moved to Knowlton in 2015 to take on more duties as the lead coach for the Regional NextGen Program, and set up the national centre, Smith came along with him to continue her training out of Brome Lake. She eventually joined the Canadian national team in 2018.

“She is lining up a good performance already and so for me there’s excitement, a feeling of accomplishment, and I would say it is just really intrinsically motivating and satisfying to see all that work that was done really pay off for her,” said McKay.

When asked about the current situation in Japan — the Olympics has banned spectators due to COVID-19 — he noted that it is likely a strange feeling for many athletes. The rowing events are not particularly rowdy, but the noise level increases as the rowers reach the finish line.

"In a normal olympic situation you will be racing and it’s pretty quiet for the majority of the race, but as you get close to the finish line you start to hear the roaring of the crowd and I think that’s something that this group of athletes is going to miss,” he said.

The Tokyo Olympic Games has been special so far, McKay added, athletes are going full tilt, and most of the rowing races have been a dead heat. Several Canadian teams have slipped into the final of their respective events by the finest of margins.

Smith has developed into a dominant rower, and she only started when she was 18 years old. McKay said rowing lives on the fringe of the sports world, and not a lot of young athletes consider trying it until they are in their teens.

However, when the Games roll around, rowing clubs often witness a surge in registration, as the sport gains visibility on the television screen, and especially when Canada is doing well. It is a demanding and physical sport, but McKay believes that it suits all ages.

“It’s such a healthy activity that it can just lead to a lot of good things for people on that side and there is a really fun community and a great group of people who are involved across the country and in Quebec,” he said.

McKay has been a rowing coach since 1993. He has never been to the Olympics, but he has witnessed many former athletes reach the top, and come home with a medal. His goal remains the same. He wants to train and propel the next generation of Olympic rowers.

“It’s something that I’ve been saying for a while, not just about [Smith]. I have a belief in myself to help athletes rise up to that level, and also I’ve been in the sport of rowing for a long time. My interest is really developing athletes up to that level,” said McKay.

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