When Lisa Roman stepped into the boat at her very first University of the Fraser Valley rowing team practice in the fall of 2007, she had no inkling that the sport would carry her all the way to the Olympic Games.
And yet, that’s the heady position she finds herself in as of Tuesday, when she was one of 26 athletes nominated by Rowing Canada to represent Canada at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The rowing events will take place at Lagoa Stadium, Aug. 6-14, and Roman will be part of the Canadian entry in the women’s eight.
It’s been an incredible ascent in the sport for the 26-year-old Langley product. She’d never tried rowing prior to joining Cascades head coach Liz Chisholm’s learn-to-row program as an 18-year-old UFV freshman. Now, she’s poised to become the first-ever Cascades alum – across all sports – to compete in the Olympics.
“It’s awesome, but it hasn’t really set in yet, I don’t think,” Roman said with a chuckle. “We’ve been training so hard lately that we haven’t been able to take it all in yet. But it’s pretty amazing. I can’t wait to get there and represent Canada.”
Roman’s Olympic selection is a thrill for Chisholm, who believes that her former pupil’s competitive spirit is what sets her apart as an athlete.
“It’s just so exciting to see all her hard work and time pay off,” Chisholm marveled. “It’s been her dream to compete at the Olympics.
“For me as a coach, to have somebody like Lisa end up at this pinnacle of sport, it’s exciting to see a young person realize their dream. You work with so many athletes, and you don’t know which ones will embrace it and be willing to work that hard.
“She isn’t the biggest woman on the Canadian team – she’s worked for all the strength and boat movement she has.”
Roman may have lacked rowing experience when she arrived at UFV, but athleticism wasn’t an issue – she had 14 years of competitive figure skating under her belt, along with eight years of dance. The biggest challenge was building her upper-body strength – she already had plenty of power in her legs thanks to figure skating.
Within a year, Roman was the Cascades’ top female rower, and during her sophomore season, she tried out for and made Team B.C. for the Canada Summer Games in Charlottetown, PEI. After winning three medals (gold in women’s pairs and fours, silver in the eight), she began seeking out scholarship opportunities south of the border and ended up at Washington State University.
Roman fashioned a highly decorated career with the Cougars, highlighted by second team All-America honours as a senior; last month, she was named to the Pac-12 conference’s all-century team.
In 2011, Roman landed a spot on Canada’s women’s eight for the U23 World Rowing Championships, and helped the team set a world age-class record. After graduating from Washington State in 2012, she was invited to join Rowing Canada’s national training centre in London, Ont.
Each year, the national team is re-selected from the pool of athletes at the training centre, and Roman has been chosen to represent Canada in international competition for four straight years. Her accolades include 11 international medals in the women’s eight, including three from the World Rowing Championships (bronze in 2013, silver in 2014, bronze in 2015).
That the Canadian women’s eight have been a podium fixture at the World Championships bodes well for their medal hopes in Rio, but Roman noted that the level of international competition has increased in recent years.
“Everyone’s striving for gold, so that’s our biggest goal right now,” she acknowledged. “Getting a medal for Canada would be amazing. We’ve just got to get on the right track and tidy up all the work we’ve put in these last four years, and keep moving in that direction.”
Team Canada’s rowers have already visited Rio multiple times and are familiar with the rowing venue, but the Olympic veterans on the team have told Roman that nothing compares to the atmosphere that awaits.
“I don’t really know what to expect – everyone tells me that even when you feel like you’re prepared, it’s so much more than you think it’s going to be,” she said. “You get there, and you have no idea. I’m expecting a lot of everything, I guess you could say . . . I’m going to treat it as if it’s any regatta until it’s over.”
Through it all, Roman hasn’t forgotten her UFV roots. When she’s visiting the area, she makes a point of stopping by the Bedford Channel at Fort Langley to guest-coach at a Cascades practice or two, often bringing along Canadian national teammates.
“I think all athletes remember where they started, but to actually take the action steps and come out and support us is huge, it really is,” Chisholm said. “She loves what she’s doing, and she loves to encourage people who are sitting where she sat and are going to the same university where she started. For our athletes, it’s so exciting to connect with someone who’s reached that level of the sport and wants to show them that they matter.”
“I hold UFV dear to my heart,” Roman said. “If it wasn’t for that opportunity (with the Cascades), I don’t know if I ever would have rowed. I like to give back to them, and hope to inspire others. Some people think you have to be from a big school to get to where you want to go, but I don’t think that’s true at all. You’ll make it if you put your heart and soul into it.”