West Vancouver rower Kirsten Barnes can vividly remember the moment she and her Canadian teammates announced their presence to the world in the sport’s premier powerhouse event, the eights.
It was the finals of the 1991 world championships, and Canada was locked in an epic battle against Russia for gold. Barnes was rowing from the bow seat and had a perfect view of the whole race, and just how close it was.
“In the bow you really feel the speed of the boat, you feel everything,” Barnes told the North Shore News in a recent interview. Canada’s coxswain suddenly shouted out two short but powerful phrases. “The Russians are dying! We’re moving!”
The rowers responded.
“On the next catch, when the blade goes in the water, it felt like the whole boat lifted out of the water,” said Barnes. “We all connected at the same time, pushed our legs out at the same time and the whole boat surged. That wasn’t the winning stroke, but it got us ahead for the next 10 strokes to then beat them by a couple of inches.”
It was that race that started the Canadians on an epic two-year run, and ultimately helped lead Barnes to her current status as one of the 2019 inductees into the North Shore Sports Hall of Fame. Barnes ended up winning gold in the women’s fours and eights at the 1991 world championships and 1992 Summer Olympic Games, a run of victories that launched Canada as one of the world’s great rowing nations.
The rowing achievements are a huge part of Barnes’s life – “even to this day good friends will introduce me as their ‘Olympic friend’ or ‘Olympic gold medallist friend,’” she said with a laugh – but none of it would have happened if not for Brian Lynch, a teacher at West Vancouver’s Hillside Secondary who in the early 1980s decided to start a rowing team. It wasn’t a decision often made in those times.
“We were, I think, the first public school rowing in Vancouver,” said Barnes. She was in Grade 10 at the time, and a competitive figure skater (fellow 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Karen Magnussen was a hero of hers) when Lynch started the rowing program. Something about joining a school team and competing alongside friends really appealed to Barnes, and so she decided to jump in the boat. Well, actually, more like a barge – Vancouver Rowing Club’s famous training vessel.
“It was called the barge. It was this big, wide, flat-bottomed barge, essentially, that had a big tiller at either end … with a plank down the middle that coaches could walk up and down between the rowers,” she said. “The thing moved in the water, really, really slowly. It was really heavy, but it didn’t matter – it was all about learning the rowing stroke and what it felt like to move the blade through the water and the sequencing of the stroke and trying to do it in unison, following the person in front of you. I loved that.”
She was hooked: “I definitely kind of fell in love with rowing. … It was pretty cool. It was really thanks to Brian getting that started off his own back.”
The team went on to win the high school girls eights race at the national championships in 1985 when Barnes was in Grade 11. Three years later she was racing in the 1988 Olympics. There were no medals for Canadian rowers at those Games, but the stage was being set for a big breakout.
It was during a chat with a teammate at the 1991 world championships – following some strong performances in the heats – that Barnes realized the Canadian women had the ability to do something great.
“She turned to me and looked me in the eye and said, ‘We could win this.’ I’ll never forget that moment.”
And win they did, both the fours and eights. That success in 1991 set the women up for more glory on the sport’s biggest stage in 1992.
“We carried over that belief into the Olympic year and really we just built on that,” said Barnes. “I wanted to prove to the rowing community that we could do it again, that ’91 wasn’t a fluke.”
They did just that, winning the fours fairly comfortably after duelling a little with the United States, and then blowing the doors off the competition in the eights – they had open water at the halfway mark – to claim double gold.
“When we got to the Games it felt a little bit more like we were on a mission, and ‘get the job done.’ And a little bit of relief, when it happened.”
The enormity of the accomplishment didn’t really hit her until she returned home, said Barnes.
“You see the emotion of other people and how thrilled and excited they are for you. It almost makes you kind of appreciate it more. I think in the moment [on the podium] obviously you are really happy and you’re tearing up with the flag – that stuff happens – but we were a little bit matter-of-fact about the way we operated. It just felt like ‘this was supposed to happen.’ More of the emotion comes out when you come home and you see other people.”
Rowing and sport in general has remained a huge part of Barnes’s life, as she now lives in Victoria and is the director of the performance services team at the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific.
She’ll go into the North Shore Sports Hall of Fame in the first new class since 1971, joining athletes Karen Magnussen, Paul Kariya, and Maëlle Ricker; coach/builder Xwechtáal Andrew Paull; and Linda Moore’s world-championship-winning curling team.
The induction ceremony will be held as part of the annual North Shore Sport Awards ceremony Thursday, March 14 starting at 7 p.m. in the atrium at West Vancouver Community Centre. The event is open and free to the public.