Jenny Casson pops up onto my screen, three minutes before we are to meet, enveloped in a big bright pink hoodie and just in through the door from one of her three training sessions that day. Life in 2020 means we meet virtually, across three time zones, two talking heads one fine autumn afternoon.Virtual meetings don’t phase her – her charisma carries through the screen, and it feels like she’s sitting beside me and we’re just two gals chatting about life over coffee. Bright, magnetic, and focused, Jenny is a 2021 National Team Athlete in Women’s Lightweight Rowing, paired with her doubles partner, Jill Moffatt. Currently based in Victoria, BC, after having spent her undergraduate years rowing for Tulsa University in Oklahoma, she is in the midst of what she calls her Groundhog Year, where she is training and living in perpetuity.
The Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020 was the dream goal, the culmination of four years of intense, incremental training that would prepare her to compete in the Lightweight Double Sculls – Women category. Because of the pandemic, she is now in limbo, readying for a performance that is essentially a moving target, date undetermined. Rowing has its own competitive season and there are two opportunities to qualify for the Olympics. Earlier this year, a few months after narrowly missing the qualifying spot for Tokyo in the first of these competitions, their Summer Games dream hinged on one last-chance qualifying race in May when the world ground to a halt. Since then, it has been a year of many pivots, as she grapples with crumbled plans, paused dreams, and unexpected loss.
Resilience in athletes is often touted as one of their greatest strengths. It is the backbone of every great comeback story – when the chips are down, the athlete at the centre of the story is expected to rally and rally hard to find their way back on the path to glory. I can think of many films at the top of my head that have been box-office blockbusters based on this very concept. Rocky. A League of Their Own. Karate Kid. The Mighty Ducks. However, when placed against the backdrop of a highly contagious virus that has all but paralyzed the world, how does an athlete even begin to manoeuvre their way around shifting timelines and endless changes of plans? How do the physical demands of preparation become feasible when the world is hidden away and the very camaraderie athletes thrive on morphs into something different, six feet apart?
“It’s totally ok to not be ok. People are just looking for an answer, or help, or any direction to get through it.”
In early March, four months before the Summer Olympics were set to begin and right before the onset of the competitive season, the women’s team head coach Dave Thompson was fired by Rowing Canada, an incident she simply describes as, “shocking”. Thompson, having been hired after the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics to breathe life into the rowing team, had already qualified five boats for the Tokyo Olympics. With little time to find a replacement coach before the Summer Games, Rowing Canada subsequently opted to split up the trio of assistant coaches to look after the teams. Without skipping a beat, her current coach, Phil Marshall, confidently stepped up to the plate, his familiar presence prompting her to shift her focus back to training amidst the turbulence, knowing there was still so much work to be done. Jenny is still deeply affected by this incident, but she had little time to process the event, as the world declared a global pandemic less than two weeks later. By then, she had many more challenges to navigate, the first being the second Olympic-qualifying race she was looking forward to, being cancelled.
“It feels like five years ago, but really it was only a few months ago. At first, they cancelled World Cup in May and then they cancelled World Cup 2; we still thought we had Last Chance [final race], but then they cancelled that too.” The future, as it currently stands, is pending.
For now, Jenny is focused on training, which is on an indefinite loop. Training for the Olympics is an arduous entity in and of itself, a process that she refers to as “block training”. “They’re like building blocks, where you peak for a block; the goal is to peak-peak-peak-Olympics,” her hands gesturing on an upward trajectory, as she describes the training ascent spread out over four years. “The whole year and the whole quadrennial, you’re gradually building your aerobic base to peak anaerobically. We’ve been training for four years to go to the World Championships, so now we want to be peaking in May, but not optimally. Peak in May, then peak for the Olympics.”
But once lockdown was instituted, and the Olympics postponed, the immediacy of Tokyo receded into the background. For the time being, Jenny and her partner Jill Moffatt have decided to tack on an additional year of training to extend and augment the hard work they have already put in, the quadrennial becoming a quinquennial training block leading into 2021. “That’s honestly been the best way to approach it because if not, you’ll just start going down the rabbit hole of ‘supposed-to’s.” Jenny takes her training seriously, her eyes still on the prize, because she truly believes that “we still have a job to do. When you frame it back to why you do the sport in the first place and you think about everything that’s gone into this, that’s part of the job.” Her level of dedication remains unchanged, even though new COVID-19 protocols have been an added layer to training. These days, there are self-monitoring and self-assessment procedures, in addition to cleaning and disinfecting requirements. She finds the ritual comforting for her focus. “It’s cleaner. I can’t see it as a negative. It’s made everything high-performance and efficient.” Every month, she heads to Lake Quamichan to participate in 2-kilometer races, where the teams are ranked to ensure that they remain in top form. She typically spends one to two times a day in the water or cross-training, six days a week, alternating between volume and racing in order to build up bulk, and she still undergoes ergometer testing. “It’s a lot of fun. You’re with your girls and it’s better than doing it by yourself.”
Her naturally sunny disposition and her reliance on her team and on her partner, Jill, is evident in the way Jenny has been able to navigate this tricky year. In Jill, she has found a built-in comrade over the last year-and-a-half of their rowing relationship. Although her pairing with Jill was based on logistics (“you’re paired with who you race the fastest with”), it feels more like serendipity that these two have each other to lean on during these trying times. “She’s my partner/best friend/mom/sister/coach – she expects so much from me and I, of her. I would not be doing the extra year if she was not my partner. How she’s helped me and supported me and how she’s been there, I don’t think anyone else would have done what she has done for me.” They constantly draw support from each other simply because there is no other person who truly understands what this year is like for them. They have developed a personal shorthand over time that crosses over from their professional to their personal lives, where Jenny can read and interpret Jill’s every grunt, sniffle, and breath and understand immediately what she wants to communicate. The camaraderie allows them to be vulnerable, their synergy and synchronicity enabling them to be both reinforcing and protective of the other at the same time, both on and off the boat. “I’m very emotional. Jill is very logical, empathetic, understanding, energetic, and vibrant.” They are essentially polar opposites, but their differences allow them to anchor each other in significant and stabilizing ways.
“If it’s easy, it’s not worth it.”
At 25 years old, Jenny is considered a young athlete, and is often told that she has her entire career ahead of her. In the grand scheme of things, yes, she is young; but this common refrain is a double-edged sword when people tell her that there will be another Summer Games, as if the certainty of another time is enough consolation during a year where she envisioned a completely different life. But, regardless of her age and her Olympic dreams, “I’m not so sure I would be willing to do this extra year again because of the demands.” It has been grueling, full stop, both physically and emotionally. To add a little more salt to the wound, there are whispers in the rumour mill within the rowing community that the lightweight rowing category will be eliminated after the Tokyo Olympics, so the opportunity to race again in Paris 2024 may never come to fruition. 2020, in many ways, was her Olympic-level last shot. For now, she can’t look too far ahead, as the Olympics are still scheduled for next summer. “I’m so happy they’re so optimistic – if they can figure out a way to do it like the NBA did, then by all means.”
Affable and chatty, Jenny does not outwardly come across as an angry person. But she readily admits that she has felt rage and frustration this year, for so many understandable reasons. “I often have been fueled by anger in sport – but it’s funny with anger, it’s an umbrella of emotions. Something Jill and I started doing, instead of getting angry and getting down, we ask ourselves what would your competition want you to be thinking right now? Or doing right now?” She channels those thoughts, that her rivals would want to see her wallowing and upset to light a fire within her to work harder, train harder, and to do more, to do better. “Well, I trained harder than you. I pushed harder than you. If you can take those same emotions and switch them down a different path, it can drive you to make new goals. You can be excited about new challenges that are still going to pay off in the long run.” She is a magician, using sleight of hand to transform one feeling into another, altering it so that it fuels her, instead of destroying her. She chooses to use these emotions that can get the best of anybody, especially during this year, to accelerate. It’s not an easy task, but she’s doing it regardless.
Her hunger and intensity for the sport has not waned. Spurred by a former classmate’s offhand comment that “no one from Tulsa is ever going to make the Olympics”, Jenny has singlehandedly adapted to the many obstacles she’s faced in her short career by turning negatives into positives, a lesson in resilience we could all use and be reminded of every now and again. When lockdown was initiated in the spring and she was unable to row, she regrouped with Jill, charted a 250-kilometer cycling course and trained to complete that taxing route. It’s not a surprise that the aspirational athletes she looks up to share that same insatiable drive. “The athletes, to me, who are the best are the ones who train the hardest. Train hard, give back, and prove that with hard work you will succeed. If you can bring that culture into the community and motivate kids and up-and-coming athletes to work that same way, that’s how you make a difference. If it’s easy, it’s not worth it.” She is simply a classic case of strong work ethic paying off – in November 2019, she set a lightweight 6000m ergometer world record in the 19-29 age group, with a time of 21:43.9. Previously, in June 2018, she had set another word record in the 19-29 age group for the lightweight 2000m ergometer, clocking in at 6:53.8. Both of these achievements are outstanding feats, yet Jenny remains humble. She cites the careers of fellow rower Carling Zeeman and tennis superstar Serena Williams as those she wants to emulate. In many ways, she still feels like the new kid on the block. Comparing her first race as an elite athlete (“I was a nervous wreck who thought she didn’t belong there”) to her experience today (“I’m still a nervous wreck who just wants in with the big girls”), she hangs onto that feeling of there being still so much to learn to keep herself in check. “I don’t know in what world people think that ever goes away. I don’t ever not want to be nervous before a race because that would mean I don’t care.”
Jenny Casson cares a lot and it shows. If there’s one thing she’s learned during this bumpy year, is that “it’s totally ok to not be ok. People are just looking for an answer, or help, or any direction to get through it.” Her purpose and her tangible goal of participating in the 2020-now-2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics has allowed her to not only survive this year, but also thrive in the face of it. “I’m so lucky to have something so magnetic that grabs me by the collar and pulls me back up so fast – you don’t have time to do this, to be down. I’m so grateful for it.”
Her ability to see the bigger picture is how she keeps the hope alive. When asked what her favourite moment of 2020 has been (because there is always a sliver of hope in darkness), she pauses for a moment to reflect. “Enjoying the little things – like how much I love my morning cup of coffee. A walk, fresh air. I can go outside, and France is in full lockdown. I’m lucky.”
Photography by: Kevin Light