Our Campus: After victory at national rowing championships, Hillary Janssens has her sights set on 2016 Olympics

Hillary Janssens is coming off of a team victory at the Canadian National Rowing Championships last weekend and is on her way to potentially represent Canada at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

All of this is quite an accomplishment for an athlete who came to UBC without any intention of joining the rowing team. In fact, while she had played basketball and volleyball, Janssens hadn’t rowed at all until she came to campus.

“The first week of school, the rowing team walks around campus and looks for tall people and asks them to try the sport,” Janssens, who is 6’2, explained. “That’s how our program is sustaining itself.”

Janssens said that rowing had a steep learning curve, but she enjoyed how “objective” the sport was compared to others. You can see your race time and compare it to other rowers on the team. Workouts also give clear data with the indoor rowing machines offering feedback on how strong each pull on the machine is. 

“It’s so unbiased,” she said. “It’s very tangible and you can easily compare yourself to others.”

Finding enjoyment in the sport is important given the intense schedule of UBC rowers. Janssens said many days start with a 5:30 a.m. rowing practice at the team’s facility in Richmond followed by a second afternoon conditioning workout on campus. 

Between the two practices, Janssens is busy taking classes as a biology student in her fourth year at UBC and hopes to go into medicine once she graduates.

“Not having much of a social life” is the trick to managing her schedule, she said. “I try to get as much sleep as possible because if you don’t get sleep, things go downhill pretty quickly.”

Janssens is quick to deflect attention from herself, pointing to the impressive feat achieved by the women’s team in the eight-person boat competition at nationals where they won their third championship in as many years during the weekend of October 8-10.

While Janssens is clearly loyal to the larger UBC rowing crew, unity on such a teams is complex because the nature of the sport. No substitutes or extra spots are available once the team of eight has been set, making it internally competitive or “quite cutthroat,” in her words.

The tension is eased by the fact that members of the team usually arrive in cohorts of a few women who improve and make the jump from the novice team to varsity level together. Janssens was able to row varsity in her first year, winning nationals in the two-person boat. She has continued to win the two-person boat competition at the championships since then and notes her development as a rower as “quite the progression.” In her first year, she was paired with a far more experienced athlete who was able to coach her and raise her skill level dramatically. During the second year, she was able to help her less experienced teammate in the boat. This year, she rowed with a friend who had joined the team the same year as she had.

Janssens said she’s not sure what role rowing will play in her future, but she is confident it will remain a part of her life for a long time.

“It’s actually a pretty serene sport,” she said. “It’s given me so much in my life and I don’t think I could really extricate myself from it.”