Growing up in a small West Kootenay community, Eliza Dawson hadn’t picked up an oar until she attended the University of Calgary.
Incredibly, three years later she was racing with Team Canada eights at the World Rowing U23 Championships in Varese, Italy July 25-30.
“I actually didn’t know what rowing was until I went to Calgary in 2018 to start my degree,” said the 22-year-old Trail native. “While I was working out, I had a few people come up to me and say, ‘You should try rowing.’”
Dawson obliged, started rowing in January, 2019, and was soon racing for the U of C Dinos rowing team. However, her rowing coach, Lisa Kates, says it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
“There was a very steep learning curve that first summer,” Kates told the Times. “She went to the Canadian University Rowing Championships that first fall and rowed in a pair and they flipped.”
An oar caught a buoy and Dawson and her partner found themselves in the water, but the duo got back in their boat and finished the race, an indication of the character she brings to the team.
“She has been a great contributor to the team in terms of her work ethic, she’s got the height and the athletic background to transition nicely into rowing,” said Kates.
COVID put an end to competition in 2020, but the team returned to Glenmore Reservoir to train in September, 2021.
Dawson’s hard work, dedication and rigorous training regimen paid off. Soon, Dawson’s 2-k erg score on the rowing machine was the fastest on the U of C team, says Kates.
“I think part of it comes down to her physique and genetics, but obviously it’s her hard work,” added Kates. “You can’t teach tall, but you got to have that grit to be able to want that and put in the hours, because it’s a lot of training and not a lot of racing.”
With Dawson as co-captain of the Dinos women’s fours boat, the Calgary rowing team won a first ever gold at the 56th Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston in October, 2021. The Head of the Charles is the largest and one of the most prestigious regattas in the world, attracting competitors from all over the globe.
Dawson then earned the invite to row with Team Canada, the first Calgary Dino in its rowing history to do so. She joined the U23 team in Duncan, B.C. this past spring to train for the Worlds.
“It’s not very common,” said Kates. “Especially when you think of rowing in Calgary, we are limited to six months of the year and on top of that Eliza didn’t row every summer, and on top of that COVID hit so she has about 12 months of on-water time. So to go from 12 months on the water to the national rowing team, that is quick.”
Here, the emerging talent learned just how special it was to be a member of the National U23 NextGen rowing team and wearing the maple leaf.
“Our racing uniforms are very special, only to be worn when racing at a multi-games sport events like the world championships, Pan Am Games or the Olympics,” explained Dawson. “The same thing goes for the oars. The Maple Leaf is only put on the oar on those special occasions, otherwise the oar is only red and white striped.”
At the World Championships, Team Canada U23 women’s eights came fourth in the opening heat, but could still qualify for the final in the repechage.
“At the start line we all knew how hard we had to push ourselves to get in the A final, because every boat in that heat knows one boat is not going through, so every boat is pedal to the metal, you give everything you have.”
In one of the closest races in rowing history, the Canadian women eights finished in fifth coming in just 1.3 seconds behind the first place team, and .03 seconds from making the final four.
“With that little amount of time between boats, you could say if the wind blew a little bit more on that lane, it might have been,” said Dawson. “It’s just how the race went that day. But I still couldn’t be more happy, because if you have to go out, that’s a good way to go out.
“You can’t help but be proud of your performance and how it went.”
Following the race, Team Canada’s 2020 Olympic rowing gold medalist, Andrea Proske, who was a TV commentator for the event, gave a shout out to Dawson for an admirable job taking her spot in the fourth seat of the women’s eights.
The rowers exchanged texts after the race, and Proske encouraged Dawson with a message that read: “We learn more from near misses, than early success.”
“It was very inspiring,” said Dawson. “Everybody I talked to has been so supportive.”
Dawson will return to University of Calgary for her final semester studying Kinesiology this fall. She graduates in December and has an offer to attend Washington State University and continue her academic and rowing career.
Coach Kates believes Dawson, with her natural ability, hard work and character, has unlimited potential.
“I think it’s pretty incredible to see what she’s accomplished in such a short period of time and that she’s only really scratched the surface of what her potential is,” said Kates. “If she wants to put in the effort, I’m really excited to see what she can do.”
Dawson also hopes to be back in Duncan, training with Team Canada for yet another chance to wear the Maple Leaf.
“The idea that I went and represented Canada on the world stage is just unreal, I still can’t believe that I did that and that happened,” added Dawson. “It’s all really cool, I loved every minute of it.”