Skylar Presch is the only man in the boat.
And he couldn’t be happier about it.
As the coxswain for the Team BC women’s 8 rowing squad, Presch and his teammates picked up a gold medal at the Canada Summer Games on Thursday.
The team fought off challenges from Alberta and Ontario to earn the top place on the podium.
While Presh usually rows with the men, a change in rules now allows for the coxswain to be of either gender.
The coxswain is the strategist of the team, who monitors the rowers’ technique, helps set the pace and gives the team information about their position. The coxswain also has responsibility for steering the boat, although in an 2000 metre straight sprint, race, there is little steering involved.
“It is very unusual to have a man in the boat with the women. This is a very recent change. I came a bit late to the selection process, and there was a female coxswain who made a decision to go with the men’s team, so I was placed onto the women’s — I couldn’t be happier about it. I’ve got a gold medal around my neck,” says Presch in a post-race telephone interview.
Presch notes women’s rowing in Canada is a very competitive program internationally. But this team does not train together regularly. The squad was only formed two weeks ago, with just that time to train together before the games.
“There’s a lot of amazing athleticism among this team. We all had the same goal in mind, to win gold, so when you have a group of athletes with that same mentality, it’s easy to build a crew.”
The BC Team was feeling confident heading into the final race, as they had won their heat in the preliminary round.
“I knew we were powerful. We had actually held back a bit in the heats. I knew we had more to give for the finals,” says Presch. “We were sitting tall in the boat… I think it was our confidence and our composure that helped us to win.”
Presch says the team got off to a strong start, getting up to speed quickly in an effort to pull away from the pack early on. While they figured Ontario as the team to beat, Presch says he was somewhat surprised by the efforts of the Alberta team, who hadn’t had a strong preliminary race.
“The plan was to get up on them by going as fast as we could right away. By 500 metres in, we had a comfortable lead, so we were just able to keep up the pace and maintained the lead all the way home.”
Presch’s father Guido was watching the race and says he is extremely proud of his son, noting the team ended up winning by a five-second margin.
“As soon as I saw their boat jump to the front, I knew that was Skylar,” he says. “It was very exciting. The men’s job was already taken, but then to have him placed on the women’s team and then to get gold, it’s pretty prestigious.”
Presch has six years experience as a coxswain, and says this helped set the course for the team.
“You study the other teams to see what their strengths and weaknesses are, you look across at their boat and pay attention to what’s going on, you learn to eyeball speed and how many strokes per minute and that helps you devise where your team should be.”
With his first national-level gold around his neck, Presch says the event has been a remarkable experience.
“I didn’t really realize how big this would be. Kenora has really put on a grand spectacle here. I met the prime minister, we heard heard the anthem… It’s pretty crazy.”
Presch will now focus on September when he heads to the University of Victoria to study chemistry and be a part of the men’s rowing program. Some of his female teammates will also be going to UVic.
“It’s cool that I will be going to school with a handful of the athletes I’ve rowed with and met here,” he says.
Presch has also set his sights on rowing with the Canadian National Team, as well as eventually coaching young rowers in the sport.
“I’d love the chance to cox at that level, but there’s a lot of competition for just one spot. I’m just going to do my best and hope the coaches notice.”