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Rowers Kate Sauks and Liz Fenje on a rowboat.
Liz Fenje and Kate Sauks. Photo by Katie Steenman/Rowing Canada

Rowing for Gold

How Pan Am athlete Kate Sauks went from rowing newbie to medallist in just five years

Kate Sauks (BPHE 2007, PhD 2014) and rowing partner Liz Fenje raced to gold in the women’s lightweight double sculls at the Pan Am Games – making Kate the first U of T athlete at the Games to win a medal. U of T Magazine talked to Kate afterward about her journey from rowing newbie to international star in just five years, 5:30 a.m. practices and the power of sport to change lives.

Congratulations on your gold medal? How did you feel during that last race?
We led the whole way but the Cubans pushed at the end, and there was a moment when I thought they might have the extra speed to pass. When they didn’t, I was so happy – and relieved!

How do you prepare for an important race?
The night before, I imagine the feeling of rowing a race. I go through different scenarios, from feeling great and having a good race to not having a good start and trying to pass other boats. I imagine myself working through the most challenging parts of the race. After that, I try not to think about it.

I’m a lightweight rower, so I have to weigh in two hours before a race. Before that, I put on a good playlist and go for a jog to get into my zone. After weighing in, I have a break and then do five minutes of pretty hard cycling – it’s a good wakeup for your body. Usually I’m a little nervous when I’m on land, but once we get into the boat, calmness comes over me.

You do the warm-up with your rowing partner?

That must be a pretty important relationship.

It is. It’s an interesting dynamic. You can pick your spouse, your boyfriend or girlfriend, your best friend, but you can’t pick who your boat partner is. So you have to bash it out at the beginning and figure out what each person likes and doesn’t like. Liz and I have been only rowing together since the end of May but luckily we get along pretty well. We complement each other.

You picked up rowing as an adult. How did you get started?
All through my undergrad at U of T, I was a pole vaulter on the track and field team. In my second year of graduate studies, around 2010, I retired from track and tried kayaking and volleyball. Then my sister, who rowed, suggested I try it. It was lovely being outside and on the water, and I got hooked.

So in just five years, you went from trying a new sport to winning a gold medal at the Pan Am Games!
I have an extensive background in competitive sports, so that helps. I also have a very competitive instinct.

Pole vaulting and rowing are both technical sports where you have to pay a lot of attention to different things your body is doing.
My first passion was ballet, which teaches body awareness. So now, when my rowing coach says I need to move my body in a very specific way, I pick it up quickly. In ballet you also have to be really focused and that’s carried that over to the sports I’ve done.

How did you fit in your training while doing a PhD?
Luckily, at U of T, I rowed at 5:30 a.m. After, I’d go into the lab and get some work done. One reason it took me longer than four years to do my PhD is I would leave the lab at 6 p.m. to do another workout. I wasn’t a lab rat, but I had balance in my life, which was important to me.

What role has U of T played in your rowing career?
My first year in Varsity rowing was a great environment. My teammates were all very encouraging and enthusiastic; I thought it was a sport I could go really far with. Michael Braithwaite was rowing with U of T at the time, and he medalled at the world championships (and later competed for Canada in the 2012 Olympics). That was very motivating – the realization that U of T’s program could produce elite athletes.

What do you think of the university’s athletic facilities?
I was a little jealous that the Goldring Centre didn’t open until after I’d graduated but the Athletic Centre was my second home during undergrad. I always thought it was a great facility.

What do you see as the value of U of T hosting big sporting events such as the Pan Am Games?
It’s huge. So many people come to university, and they work hard and may graduate at the top of their class. But there’s more to life than what you learn in the classroom and study in books. Sports – and my teammates, and the competition experience – have taught me so much. First-years who start rowing find a sense of community in U of T.

Having the university host these events helps foster excitement for sport. And I think this also helps build community more broadly.

What has sport taught you about yourself?
When I was 16, I tried figure skating because I loved watching it in the Olympics. But I was really bad at it. Kids as tall as my bellybutton were skating circles around me, and I’d just fall. I did it for three years, and what I found out is that I love challenges – to see what I can accomplish by pushing myself. This translated to my academics. Anyone in my family would say that I’d be the last person in the family to have a PhD. I think the excitement of the challenge is what enabled me to finish it.

As an athlete, what kind of legacy do you think the Pan Am Games leaves for Toronto?
After we finished rowing, we came into Toronto for the day. We were wearing our Team Canada uniforms and everyone was super excited to see us – people of all ages. The Games are creating a sense of community and a sense of pride. Also, all of the facilities that have been built are going to be used. They’ll help inspire the next generation of athletes.

What impact have the Games had on you personally?
If someone had said to me in January that I was going to medal at the Pan Am games, I’d have said, “I wish I could.” It’s something I didn’t expect. It’s made me realize that you just never know until you try. It’s made me excited to see what else I can do.

What does the future hold for your rowing career?
I will continue to train at the national centre in London through 2016 to see if Rio will be a possibility.

And after rowing?
I’ve always loved anatomy and so my hope is to be a professor of anatomy one day.

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