Walking through the arrival door at Calgary International Airport, Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski was welcomed by a spirited rendition of “O Canada” and a large crowd of friends, family and strangers eager to get a look at the gold medal hanging around her neck.
Still, the Calgarian says her new status as Olympic champion hasn’t quite sunk in.
“I feel like the moment of crossing the finish line has sunk in and that was like the best moment ever. Totally overwhelming,” Gruchalla-Wesierski said. “But then after that, I just keep forgetting why people actually want to talk to me!”
The 30-year-old is part of the first Canadian team to win Women’s Eight rowing since 1992.
Canada wins gold medal in women’s eight rowing at Tokyo Olympics
But her dreams were nearly shattered just six weeks before the win when she was in a brutal bike crash.
With a broken collarbone, 56 stitches, countless bruises and a team travelling to Japan without her, it looked like her journey was over.
But, after seeing countless specialists who approved a comeback attempt, Gruchalla-Wesierski quickly had surgery and started recovering with mom Maria-Cristina Cortoni and boyfriend Kolton Jordison with her for support.
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Rowing legend Silken Laumann famously won bronze in Barcelona two months after a German boat hit her and seriously injured her leg.
With Gruchalla-Wesierski fresh out of surgery and furiously training, Laumann coached her through the mental and physical grind of a last-minute return to form.
“She just said: ‘You’re super healer like I was, and you have just got to believe there’s no room for doubt or fear or worry. You’ve just got to press on. You’re going to make it.’
“It was so true.”
She arrived in Tokyo 10 days after her teammates and had to compete against Canada’s spare, Rebecca Zimmerman, to earn back her place in the boat.
Still, the rowers who came before the group weren’t done helping yet.
The night before finals, 1992 champion and 2020 Chef de Mission Marnie McBean joined the team for a heart-to-heart conversation honouring her teammate, late gold medalist Kathleen Heddle, who passed away after a six-year battle with cancer earlier this year.
Marnie McBean to lead Team Canada to Tokyo 2020
Once the Canadian women were at that start line, there was no option but gold.
“In the warm-up before the start line, there was thunder that was starting to happen and it just kind of made us think: Kathleen’s here with us,” Gruchalla-Wesierski added.
“You could just tell the crew had decided that nobody was going to stop us and we were gonna have our best race ever.
“No matter the result, we were going to be okay with that, because that was our best performance.”
The win ended up being a blowout, by rowing standards, with the Canadians holding off a late surge from the New Zealand crew.
Back at home, her parents were watching by themselves, too nervous to be around other people.
“The last 250 metres, when they still had the lead, I knew it was won,” Tad Gruchalla-Wesierski said.
“We lost it. I was crying and screaming and yelling we’re hugging each other and high-fiving each other.
“Her dream came true. How many of us can say that?”
The first order of business after many hugs and pictures? A beer, poutine and finally, a night of rest after a six-week odyssey from the lowest low to the top of the podium.
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