When the Canadian women's eight rowing crew took an early lead in their gold medal race at the Tokyo Olympics on July 30, Calgarian Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski had a feeling they were going to hold on and win.
"Within the first 15 strokes, I just felt the power and the commitment from the girls," she told The Homestretch on Tuesday. "And I just knew, like, nobody was going to walk through us today. I didn't really know or process throughout the race what that meant, but I just knew."
And they did hold their first-place position, fending off a surge from New Zealand late in the 2,000-metre course to earn Canada's first gold medal in the event since 1992.
It was a quick turnaround as they left the Olympic Village and flew back to Canada the next day — not leaving much time for their victory to sink in.
"It's pretty surreal, I'm not going to lie," said Gruchalla-Wesierski. "I've been dreaming about this for a really, really long time and can't believe it actually happened."
Gruchalla-Wesierski almost didn't make it to the Games after breaking her collarbone in a bike crash 40 days before the opening ceremonies. She arrived in Tokyo 10 days after her teammates and had to compete to earn back her spot in the boat.
The plan before the race, said Gruchalla-Wesierski, was to get ahead off the start and then dig deep in the middle 1,000 metres. When the New Zealand team made their move, coxswain Kristen Kit called to the Canadians.
"She said, 'All right, 10 for the Kiwis, they're coming.' And then once we held off their moves, she's like, 'Ten more to make some more space between you and them. And again, it worked," said Gruchalla-Wesierski. "And I just knew that we were pulling ahead, and that was a pretty cool feeling."
The six minutes of the race went by in a blur, she said.
"When you're in it … it feels really chaotic," she said. "Rowing looks really serene. It does not feel like that whatsoever. It is loud. You hear all the coxswains, there's water flying up everywhere. It's pretty hectic."
Flying from Tokyo to Toronto with her teammates, Gruchalla-Wesierski said she enjoyed the recognition from fans, taking photos and pulling out their medals. But then she had to catch her connection to Calgary, and that was the first time she had been by herself since their victory.
"It was kind of weird getting that attention alone," she said.
Even though she can't celebrate with her teammates, Gruchalla-Wesierski said she's going to relax and enjoy being an Olympian champion by spending time with her friends and family here in Calgary.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I feel a little bit like I'm dreaming and I'm not really ready to wake up."
With files from The Homestretch.