Sights set on Olympics

Former Queen’s rower takes 11 years off, but is now aiming for London 2012

Former Gael and U.S. Olympic hopeful Isolda Penney rigs up her boat at the Kingston Rowing Club in the fall.
Former Gael and U.S. Olympic hopeful Isolda Penney rigs up her boat at the Kingston Rowing Club in the fall.

Isolda Penney stopped rowing in 1995. Halfway through her Queen’s undergraduate career, she got married and had a child. Over the next decade, she raised her son, finished her BA, tried starting a wedding cake company and had two more children.

She hardly exercised for 11 years. She didn’t row, run or play any sports. All she did was chase her son around at the park.

But every time she crossed Kingston’s La Salle causeway and saw the oars flashing from across the river, she felt a small pang of desire to get back out there.

Penney finally started rowing recreationally in May 2006, partnering with a 45-year old woman in a two-person boat at the Kingston Rowing Club. Less than two years later, she was at the Canadian Olympic camp.

“I thought people were going to think I was crazy,” she said. “I hadn’t worked out in a decade and I was 31. But once I got back in the boat, I thought ‘this is what I’m supposed to do.’”

Since then, Penney has won a Canadian national championship in a single boat, has twice been named Canada’s female sculler of the year, barely missed out on the 2008 Summer Olympics and has participated in World Cups, World Championships and a Pan American Games.

In April, she’ll travel to Chula Vista, California to vie for an Olympic berth — with the U.S.

national team.

“They cancelled the women’s sculling program in Canada,” Penney said. “I’m not interested in rowing in a speed boat.”

Since Penney was born in Alaska and holds dual citizenship, she simply had to get permission from the International Rowing Federation, Rowing Canada and U.S. Rowing to make the switch. She said she barely had to do any paper work.

First, Penney needs to win U.S. Rowing’s Olympic trials that take place April 9 to 12. If she succeeds, she’ll head to Lucerne, Switzerland for the final qualifying regatta May 20 to 23. If she finishes among the top three in Lucerne, she qualifies for the Olympics.

A 37-year-old mother of three, Penney isn’t a typical Olympic hopeful. On Wednesday night, she was scrambling to pick her daughter up from ballet practice and tuck her into bed before heading off to the gym for a late-night workout.

Yesterday, she put her kids on the school bus before heading to Toronto to meet with some trainers and physiotherapists about her strained hip flexor. But she still returned home in time to pick her kids up from the bus stop.

“They just think it’s normal, it’s what mommy does,” she said. “I think they assume other mothers do the same thing.”

Most days, Penney gets to the Kingston Rowing Club at 5:15 a.m. and returns home for breakfast with her family. She’ll generally do one or two more workouts throughout the day — on tough days, she spends over six hours rowing.

“It’s a little easier now that my little guys are in Grade 1,” she said, adding that she couldn’t do midday workouts when the children weren’t in school.

Penney’s workout routine is heavily integrated with Queen’s Athletics and Recreation’s rowing program. She often spends her mornings with Queen’s rowers. She frequents the ARC to train with strength and conditioning coach Rodney Wilson’s staff most afternoons.

On the water, she has the same coach that she started out with 21 years ago — John Armitage, founder of the KRC and head coach of the Queen’s varsity rowing program.

Armitage said he still remembers Penney as a student with potential — today, she’s 6’0 and weighs 176 lbs. But Penney said she only rowed for fun during her time at the University.

“I knew I had the potential, I didn’t have the work ethic,” she said. “It takes an incredible amount of work, but I wasn’t willing to work that hard … I wanted to have fun at that stage.”

Armitage was instrumental in re-igniting Penney’s rowing career in 2006. When she decided to start rowing competitively after a summer at the KRC, Armitage put her on a winter training plan and got her in touch with Queen’s Athletics staff. He still plans her training routine and overlooks some of her sessions.

Penney was first noticed by Rowing Canada in 2007, after she entered an open time trial competition and posted faster scores than some national team members. By October, she had moved to London, Ont. to join the national training centre.

But within a few months, she knew she was unwilling to uproot her family from Kingston so she moved back home to train full-time.

“One of the reasons I wanted to row in a single boat was to have more flexibility in my schedule and spend more time with my kids,” she said. “I have an amazing support system here. When I go away, we have family that can help.”

Penney said most Olympic training centres aren’t set up to deal with families.

“I’m the only mother that rows,” she said. “[Kingston] is the best place to balance the two things that are most important to me.”

Penney spent enough time in London to learn the perks and pitfalls of the national training centre. She said she didn’t thrive in such cutthroat competition, even thought she liked being pushed by her peers.

“In London, there are a couple girls that I just love. But there are also people that I wish I didn’t meet,” she said. “It’s like that in any group where you’re highly competitive.

“It’s easy to forget that, everyday, everyone’s fighting for the same thing.”

Penney has plenty of competitive training partners in Kingston, but she isn’t competing directly against any of them. She said she spends most of her time with veteran Queen’s rowers.

Over the past few years, she’s developed a particularly close friendship with former Gael Morgan Jarvis, who’s currently in Victoria at the men’s national training centre, aiming for a spot at the Olympics.

Penney said she’s reaching the end of her rowing career. She doesn’t know what she’ll do afterwards, but she’s not thinking that far ahead — she’s focused entirely on London 2012.

She said it won’t be easy — the top-ranked American rower has narrowly beaten her both times they’ve competed — but at least it will be fair.

“It’s a simple route,” she said. “You just have to be the fastest in the country.”

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