Lesley Thompson-Willie: “The Coach on the Boat”

July 30, 2012

Update: Congratulations to 52-year-old Lesley Thompson-Willie who won a silver medal with the Canadian Women’s eight rowing team! This means she is now the oldest Canadian female to win a medal, the oldest female rower to win a medal and first Canadian athlete to win medals in five different Olympic Games!

If Lesley Thompson- Willie leads her women’s eight rowing team to victory in the 2012 Olympics she’ll be setting records. Not only will be she be the oldest female in rowing to medal (a record currently held by 44-year-old Elena Georgescu), and the oldest Canadian female to win a medal, she will also be the first Canadian athlete to win medals in five different Olympic Games.

Lesley will be a 7th time Olympian this summer at the age of 52, and will be serving as the coxswain of her rowing team; a position most often overlooked. She is in charge of the boat, particularly steering and navigation. She also keeps the team aware of their position in the race, while speaking into a microphone amplified throughout the boat. To her team, Lesley is much more than that. Team members have said that she amounts to a “coach on the boat,” making technical corrections, encouraging performance, and calling out the plan of action.

The 1991 World Championships is a perfect illustration of the importance of Lesley’s role in this Canadian Rowing team. During this time, Lesley had been with the national team for a decade. The day before their 2000m coxed eighth race, six out of the eight team members had won gold medals in other events and there were fears they might not be motivated.

Lesley THompson-Willie leads Canada's eight

Photo by Tri6ky

As the race started, the Canadian team fell to the 6th and last place.  It was at this point that Lesley was able state firmly, yet calmly to her team that they were in last place. Teammates say that it was Lesley’s calm, intense voice that helped to regroup and refocus the team to push ahead. With only 750 metres left in the race, Canada was a boat length behind the “Unified Team”; a normally impossible length to make up. In this moment, it was Lesley’s reassuring voice telling her team, “You can do this, but you’ve got to listen to me. And you’ve got to go now,” that motivated them onward to claim the gold medal.

Lesley has competed in seven Olympic Games, and medaled in four of them; one gold (1992), two silver (1984, 1996), and one bronze (2000). She also has competed in 16 World Championships where she won eight medals. Lesley competed non-stop for Canada from 1980-2000, when she retired briefly before rejoining the team in 2006. In 1994, Lesley, a graduate of the University of Western Ontario was named to the Canada Olympic Sport Hall of Fame.  She is one of three Canadian women with four medals, and if she medals this summer, she will break three different records.

According to Lesley, a librarian-teacher in her hometown of London, Ontario, this will probably be her last Olympic Games. “We’ve got a lot of good coxswains in the system that are developing, she says. “I certainly would love to be involved with the program in some capacity. What that will be I don’t know.”

Prediction for 2012 Olympics

At the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, Canada’s eight team finished fourth (behind by 3 seconds), however, they have been steadily gaining on the U.S team that scored gold that year. In the 2011 World Cup, U.S again prevailed, but Canada closed the gap even more by finishing just 0.74 seconds behind them, and placing second.

This last May, during Canada’s final Pre-Olympic race against U.S, they placed second again, but were behind the Americans by just three-hundredths of a second for World Cup gold. Canada is certainly getting closer to beating their old time rival of The United States. Lesley feels that, “this team has the ability to push themselves to limits where they didn’t think they could go, the pursuit of excellence and the drive for specific goals.”

According to their coach John Keogh, “For a lot of the athletes, this is it, they are not going to get another chance…Either get it right now or go home with nothing.” Peter Cookson, National high performance director, feels that “this crew is due.” He told London (ON) free press that, “This women’s eight will put a stamp of authority on their event…we’re definitely due for a medal with this boat and this one fantastic group of women.”

2009 Profile on Lesley Thompson-Willie

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