Welcome to “Cloverdale In Conversation,” a regular feature with a local personality. This month, Olympic bronze medal winner Hillary Janssens is our guest. The long-time Cloverdale resident grew up on Nicomekl Farms.
Janssens went to Cloverdale Catholic, then Lord Tweedsmuir, and finally UBC. She enjoyed athletics and excelled in various elementary and high school sports. She took up rowing when she was a student at UBC.
Janssens just got back from a medal-winning performance at the Tokyo Olympics. She chats about growing up in Cloverdale, life on the farm, and the Tokyo Olympics.
Malin Jordan: Tell me a little bit about yourself. You grew up in Cloverdale on Nicomekl Farms? How was it growing up in that type of setting?
Hillary Janssens: I think it was really influential on how I turned out as a person. I loved growing up on a farm. It’s just such a busy place to be and there are so many things you can spend your time doing. You’re not confined to the house. You can always just go out and find work to do, or find things to do that are fun, and there’s just so many opportunities to learn.
The main thing it gave me was a sense of work ethic and having responsibilities. Because when your parents own and operate a farm, they work every single day. And even if they have a day off, it’s not really a day off because they still live on the farm and they’re still solving problems that pop up. I really developed a sense of what it means to have a job and work when you don’t always feel like working (laughs). So I really attribute my work ethic to my parents, because I grew up with that being a really regular part of our lives—just working hard.
MJ: So you went to Cloverdale Catholic and then on to Lord Tweedsmuir. Do you have any fond memories from your time at the schools?
HJ: My fond memories are just being on sports teams. I really liked playing volleyball and basketball. And I just love being part of a team. I’m quite competitive (laughs). So it was always just a nice outlet for me to be challenged by something and to try to improve myself. And I think it gave me a lot of skills that helped me in rowing. Just in terms of awareness of how to use my body and how to move athletically. And also how to be on a team and properly support my teammates and work in a group, which obviously, helps in any aspect of life.
MJ: How did you end up in rowing?
HJ: When I went to UBC, I wasn’t expecting to play a sport, but I got asked to try rowing. I said yes, just because I knew it would be a great opportunity for me to meet people and make friends and find a community within such a large university. So it certainly worked because I made the team and have so many great memories of that.
MJ: Did you live on campus at UBC?
HJ: Yes, I did for my first couple years.
MJ: How was the shift from a rural setting to such an urban setting?
HJ: It was mind boggling to be at a school with 60,000 students. Just to be around so many people who are there for different reasons—some people are trying to get straight A’s, some people are just trying to get a degree, some people are there for athletics, and some people are kind of taking a different route. And you just kind of have to find out what kind of student you want to be and what you’re really there to accomplish. For me, I wanted to be a student first and then rowing came along. Then I wanted to be a really good student and a really good athlete. So that shaped my experience. Only in a good way, though.
MJ: You said you were asked to try rowing. How did that happen?
HJ: Rowing is actually a late entry sport. So a surprising number of us on the Olympic team started in university because university rowing teams basically walk around campus in September and try to find tall people and ask them to try rowing (laughs). So I’m 6’2” and I looked athletic. So they asked me and I said, “Sure, I’ll come to a meeting.” Then I made the novice team and basically just progressed quite quickly because of my size and my general athleticism, my fitness. As soon as I started seeing progress, directly correlated to the work that I was putting in, it was very exciting and I was very motivated.
MJ: Did you play any other sports in university?
HJ: No, I didn’t. It took over pretty quickly. Rowing is quite intensive.
MJ: What kind of training program did you follow?
HJ: We were in Richmond three or four mornings a week at 5:20 a.m. for a row on the river, and then a second workout each of those days, either weights or another type of workout.
MJ: That’s a serious workout regimen.
HJ: Yeah, it’s really a lot to do when you’re in university and you have a lot of courses. But that’s what all your teammates are doing. So you try to find a way to balance it.
MJ: How did you feel when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed? I guess you would have been pretty excited to be going to those Olympics in the first place.
HJ: Yeah, that was really difficult. We understood it was inevitable at that point. It would not have been good to host it in 2020. I think the prospect of another year of training so hard was pretty daunting (laughs). Just because we’re so fit, and to maintain our fitness, and to get fitter, it takes a lot of hours of doing your sport and it’s physically just really draining—not to mention psychologically draining.
After every Olympics, a lot of rowers either retire or want to try something else after rowing. For everyone to have to wait a year to do that was tough for a lot of us, but we leaned on our teammates. We had already invested so much that really another year wasn’t going to make us throw in the towel. So it wasn’t a question of not continuing, it was just like, “Okay, this is going to be tough. Let’s sort of pace ourselves and just try to stay fit and have fun.”
MJ: So to maintain that level of fitness even under normal circumstances is mentally and physically difficult.
HJ: Absolutely. Physically, you have to workout probably an average of three hours a day, every day. Mentally, a large portion of your brain is constantly asking yourself questions like, “Is this gonna make me perform well in practice tomorrow?” Or, “Is the food I’m eating good fuel for me?” You’re constantly making decisions to put yourself in the best position to train better and to race better.
Now, to have that suddenly removed was quite surprising. I’m so relaxed (laughs). The pressure and stress I’ve been putting on myself for quite a few years now is relieved. But it’s obviously an extremely rewarding thing to do. When you race at the Olympics, or achieve your goals, it’s immensely satisfying because you know how hard you’ve worked for it.
MJ: How did you feel when it was announced the Tokyo Olympics would be going ahead?
HJ: Well, we were training under the assumption that they would (laughs). We were banking on it happening. When we finally were able to travel to Japan everyone was just so excited to be there. Everyone was so relieved and so happy to be travelling and racing again. The racing was so exciting and so, so sensational because people had all this pent up energy. The environment was so positive. It was really special to be there after such a long wait.
MJ: Can you walk me through your heat, the semifinal, and the final?
HJ: Yeah, in our heat we had a pretty good race. We took control early and sat in a position where we could see our competitors. Romania put a late charge into us, but it was okay. We won the heat.
In our semifinal, the wind was really crazy that day. Boats were either setting world records or catching crabs—which stops your boat and is really catastrophic. I think the nerves got to me a little bit in the semifinal, because I was so worried about rowing cleanly and not making any mistakes, that we got surprised by the other boats in the race. So we came third, which was really all we needed to do, but it was very close, too close for us. So that was a wake up call.
MJ: So that wake-up call jumpstarted you both for the final?
HJ: Yes, exactly. We knew exactly what we needed to do. We knew we were a fast starting crew, if we wanted to be. So that was our main goal. We were in an outside lane for the final, which is a disadvantage in rowing. Sometimes it’s a bit windier on the outside lane, and you can also see your competitors a little bit less, so you’re racing almost blind. But our goal was to use a very fast start to get out in front and we did. We were leading at 1000 (metres). Then New Zealand, who were the favourites, snuck through in the second half of the race. And Russia got us at the end, as well.
But Caileigh (Filmer) and I were just so happy to have executed our plan, which was to not leave any regrets in the first half of the race and make it hurt early. Rowing is a bit of a pain contest at a certain level. Everyone’s very, very fit and very good at rowing. So you have to be willing to suffer pretty early on in the race to be in it and to be winning it.
We’re really proud that we were able to race like that and to row well. It made all the hard work and the struggles worth it.
MJ: What does it mean to you to be bringing a bronze medal back to Cloverdale?
HJ: It’s so special. I’m so grateful for my parents and my family for supporting me. It surprised them when I went to university just aiming to be a student and then rowing took over my life. But they were always supportive. They never questioned my decision to pursue rowing. I wasn’t able to have a job while I was rowing. It’s a full-time pursuit and you don’t get paid a lot. But it’s rewarding and we can only do this for so long.
It’s just so exciting to come home as an Olympic medalist and get to hear from people that I haven’t heard from in a while or see my family and friends. It’s just really special to be able to give my community and Canadians something to cheer about after such a long, long year and a half.
MJ: So what’s next for you now in sports and school or work?
HJ: I’m taking a break from rowing. I think it’s pretty much retirement, but never say never. I’m actually studying for the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). I’m writing it next week and then I’m going to apply to some med schools. My undergrad is in biology and I really love learning about the human body. I want to help people in a tangible way and I feel like that would be a good challenge and a really good career for me.
MJ: Well, anything you’d like to add?
HJ: I just feel so grateful having been able to be an athlete for so long. It’s such a unique privilege that we have. We’re supported by our community and our government and to be able to make people smile for a few minutes while they’re watching the Olympics, that really means a lot. I feel so lucky to have been able to pursue this.
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