Health & Fitness

Canadian Olympic rowing hopefuls visit ‘winter home’ at Lake Natoma

Just after sunrise on a recent Wednesday, four well-toned oarsmen stepped off the Sacramento State Aquatic Center launch ramp and into their boat in perfect unison, taking care not to jostle the narrow craft as it glided off into the serene Lake Natoma waters.

In one swift motion, they grabbed their oars and shifted their collective body weight to move the rowboat past buoys and waterfowl. Their pristine technique was the first indication that they weren’t just a few friends out for a morning row. Their professional-grade, maple leaf-emblazoned jumpsuits were the second.

The Canadian Olympic rowing team migrated to the boating facility for two weeks this January, and for another two in February, to soak up some sun and escape the frigid Vancouver Island temperatures. The calm water and time away from the distractions of home make the training well worth the trek across the border, said assistant coach Terry Paul.

The team has been visiting Sacramento on and off since the early 1990s, but has been coming more consistently during the past three years.

Paul, a longtime coach with Rowing Canada, is training the country’s six best scullers and attempting to whittle that group down to the four who will compete in the Olympic quadruple scull – a race between boats holding four men, with each member using two oars.

Paul said he brought the team south for what he calls a “work camp,” a highly focused getaway for nonstop training and racing.

“We’re seeing how their strengths match up to find the best combination,” Paul said. “It’s very clear what our goal is here. We believe we have the talent and strength to not only qualify, but to win. These guys certainly have that potential.”

From Feb. 14 to 26, the 16 elite Canadian athletes were staying at the Marriott hotel near Folsom Boulevard, all determined to improve their form and speed before the Rio de Janeiro Games in June. Many a night was spent watching training videos with their two coaches.

A typical day started early with a small snack of oatmeal and fruit before morning training. After one to two hours on the water, it was back to the hotel for a hot breakfast before the 11 a.m. session, usually more intense than the first. Some afternoons the men went through strength training and conditioning, hosted by CrossFit Centurion down the road.

After that, it was back to the hotel for a smorgasbord of food – steak, potatoes, pasta, salad – carefully selected by the team’s nutritionist and prepared by the Marriott staff. Paul estimates that each rower eats about 8,000 calories per day.

The best thing about a work camp is getting away from day-to-day distractions, said Rob Gibson, a 30-year-old rower from Ontario, Canada, who was an alternate at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and won silver in London in 2012.

“There’s a higher level of focus,” he said. “There’s no buying groceries, making food, doing dishes. We’re able to train in more volume.”

But with that level of intensity comes an increased risk of injury. Rowing is a repetitive aerobic sport with continuous motion, said Paul, often resulting in lower back injuries and fractured ribs. The team brought a physiologist and athletic therapist along to Sacramento as well, to make sure the athletes remained in top shape.

“All the pressure from the water goes through the legs and arms and gets transferred to the core and lower back,” he said. “We have to convince the guys to hold back sometimes so they don’t overdo it.”

Team members said they relished the opportunity to perfect their strokes on Lake Natoma, a narrow body of water known in the rowing world for its long stretches and calm current. Often called the “Rose Bowl of Rowing,” the lake’s aquatic center has hosted major intercollegiate rowing events and the Pac-12 rowing championships.

Rudy Debellis, a rowing instructor with the aquatic center and a coach for the Capital Crew junior rowing program, said he tries his best to learn from the professional teams that come through. He was on the water last week with the Canadian head coach, picking up techniques to teach his crew of novice men.

“Having stars in the sport using your facility creates an excitement, an enthusiasm that keeps (younger rowers) at their best,” Debellis said. “It’s inspiring.”

The Canadian rowers said they didn’t interact with locals much while they were training, but would be happy to give advice if approached.

“The guys are friendly, but they can be a little intimidating,” Paul said. “They’re bigger than most rowers out here, and there’s kind of a mystique around the Olympic athlete.”

For now, the men are focused on just one thing: getting to Rio.

When asked about some of the complications around this year’s games, including the pollution in Brazil’s waters, Paul said it was the least of his worries at the moment.

A few Canadian juniors who rowed in a Rio de Janeiro race last summer became sick after returning from the competition, he said.

“It’s a concern, but it’s maybe a bit overblown in the media,” Paul said. “My main goal is just to qualify. Right now we’ve got to get everything right in the next two months.”

In the meantime, the team is enjoying Sacramento hospitality. In between the constant training sessions, they’ve found time to explore Old Sacramento and downtown Folsom.

“We just love the weather here – it’s awesome,” Gibson said. “The facility is top-notch, and the staff has been so welcoming. It’s like our winter home.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola