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In a star-studded race at the world rowing indoor championships, Ukraine’s Olena Buryak came out on top over Canadian national team members Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski and Sydney Payne to claim her seventh successive gold medal at the event.
Buryak was among several hundred athletes who competed virtually in World Rowing’s first-ever hybrid event while Gruchalla-Wesierski and Payne competed on the arena floor at Paramount Fine Foods Centre in Mississauga, Ont. Despite the turmoil in her country, Buryak competed from the Olympic Sports Centre in Kyiv and crossed the finish line with a time of six minutes 39.9 seconds in the women’s 2,000 metres for those aged 23-39.
Gruchalla-Wesierski followed in 6:43.2 for second place and Payne (6:52.6) was third, competing in front of a noisy hometown crowd on an Ergometer, a machine used to simulate rowing without an actual boat. Rowers saw their position during the race on a monitor and had a live race tracker on a laptop or external device.
“I prefer to be in person,” said Buryak after Sunday’s competition. “But this year, it’s not our year. It’s a year of war and we can’t enjoy Toronto.”
Buryak, a legendary indoor rower and two-time Olympian in rowing, has been a shining example of resiliency and perseverance given the circumstances her war-torn country has encountered over the last year.
‘We’re always thinking about her and her country’
“It’s so inspiring to be able to race alongside her, just seeing her name on my monitor was so special,” Gruchalla-Wesierski said. “She’s an inspiration every time we hop on the erg. We think about her, and we talk about her at our training centre. We talk about how strong she is and we’re always thinking about her and her country. We’re just so proud that she’s pushing on and pursuing the sport.”
Sunday was Buryak’s second gold-medal performance of the weekend. On Saturday, the 35-year-old set a new world record in the women’s 23-39 500 age category.
“I’m happy because if I’m inspiring at least one person in this world, it’s already a win for me. This year has shown me that sport is not about competition. The sport of rowing is about friendship. It’s about support because the world has been supporting Ukrainians in these bad times.”
Within a few hours of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces in February 2022, Buryak received an Instagram message from fellow rower Agnieszka Kobus-Zawojski of Poland asking if she was safe.
Kobus-Zawojski suggested Buryak come to Poland to stay with her and her husband, Maciej, to avoid the escalating conflict, so she did. She was in a queue for 47 hours while Russia invaded and she was trying to flee the country.
Once arrived, she formed a pair with Kobus-Zawojski and the duo competed together at the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta to both raise awareness around the situation in Ukraine and to promote World Rowing’s fundraising efforts towards the Ukrainian rowing community.
“Before the war she [Buryak] was just a friend from the rowing community, nothing special,” said Maciej Zawojski, who participated throughout the weekend in Mississauga in the men’s Versa Challenge. “But when the war started, we just helped her because we knew her. If she needs something, we’ll help and that’s how everything started. The war is still going on. We support Ukraine, all Poland. All Polish people support Ukraine.”
Buryak participated at the London 2012 Olympics and finished 10th in the W2x with partner Hanna Kravchenko and just missed the podium with a fourth-place finish in the W4x at the Rio 2016 Olympics. In 2019, she became the fastest woman ever over the 2,000 distance (6:25.6) on the erg, which stays an indoor rowing world record for women aged 30-39. Within the 30-39 age bracket, Buryak also holds the world record in the 357 (one minute), 500 (1:27.9) and 1,000 (3:11.2).