Athlete with Unique Background Aims to Prove he’s One of the World’s Most Versatile Indoor Rowers

By Alan Oldham

When the 10 male athletes face off at the World Rowing Indoor Championships first ever Versa Challenge in February, Canadian Jason Marshall is hoping to show the world he is up to the challenge.

His resume is a little different than many athletes competing in Mississauga which could set him up well for what’s to come.

The Versa Challenge is expected to be a fan favourite with five events over the two days of the championships and athletes only learning about them in some cases just moments before. It is expected to be a test of speed, strength, and endurance among other things.

Growing up in British Colombia on Canada’s west coast, Marshall and his younger brother found their love for sport came naturally.

“I had a younger brother (about a year and a half younger) and we were known around town as the ‘pitbull brothers,’” he says. “We had too much energy. We played pretty much every sport growing up.”

When he went to BC’s Simon Fraser University, Marshall had aspirations of playing professional football. He was the quarterback at Simon Fraser and had a tryout with the Canadian Football League team in Edmonton after he graduated.

When that didn’t pan out, Marshall was invited to try out for Canada’s National Rugby Team. That’s where he was first introduced to indoor rowing. But it was far from love at first sight. “My very first time on a rowing machine was actually with the Canadian National Team,” Marshall remembers. “We were doing fitness challenges. One of the challenges was a 500 metre row. I didn’t touch it for three years after that. Then I was in France playing professional rugby. We were doing a spin bike workout and there weren’t enough bikes, so the coach said for a few of us to jump on the rower. I hated it.”

A year later, dogged by injury from playing rugby, the rowing machine become an essential training tool in Marshall’s recovery. But rowing, he soon discovered was not just for rehabilitation. New Zealand takes its sports seriously, especially rugby and rowing. So, when Marshall made the move to play professional rugby in New Zealand, he was surprised at one core element of the training. “The coach was a huge advocate of using rowing in the fitness regime,” he says. “There were benchmarks to hit and workouts to do. That was my first real taste of it.”

It wasn’t long before he started seeing improvements in his fitness for rugby and rowing. Marshall wasn’t just hitting those rowing benchmarks, he was smashing them. “I realized I was pretty decent at it,” he says. “One of the tests was 2k [2000 metres, rowing’s standard distance]. I think I rowed a 6:24. I was the fastest on the team, but that was my first attempt. I didn’t know how to pace it.”

Marshall ended up having quite the career in rugby. He played 31 rugby test matches for Canada and suited up for Canada in all four games at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. He also played parts of five seasons of pro rugby in France.

While indoor rowing became part of his rugby routine, it was only a few years ago while working as a firefighter in Port Coquitlam, BC, his passion for indoor rowing really ignited.

“I was at the firehall gym with another firefighter after work,” remembers Marshall. “He bet me I couldn’t do a 1k [1000 metres on the indoor rowing machine] under 3 minutes. I got on and I did it.”

That was the turning point that got him into the sport. “I began to do some research and realized there was a whole competitive community out there.”

“With rowing I have definitely hit a number of benchmarks that are out there,” he says. “I was lucky that there were a few people who reached out to me. A month or two after the bet at work, I realized that sub 6 minutes for 2k was actually a pretty good time.”

With this goal in mind, Marshall’s training took off. “I didn’t realize how difficult that was going to be, but for whatever reason I think rugby just prepared me for the physical battles and mental pain that come with it.”

When he got his time below 6 minutes for 2000 metres, he set a new goal and achieved what is still today his personal best. “My fastest 2k is 5:49,” he says. “That was my goal, get it under 5:50.”

As for the upcoming World Rowing Indoor Championships, “I want to be as competitive as possible,” says Marshall. “I’m looking at it as my last push to do something. The field is pretty strong from the guys who have qualified, but I think if I am in my top shape, I have potential to be near the top. Joel is the man to watch and I’m hoping to be competitive,” he says referring to one of his main competitors, Finland’s Joel Naukkarinen, who won a bronze medal at the 2022 World Rowing Indoor Championships.

“I’m looking forward to the event,” Marshall adds.

Along with 10 men, 10 top women from around the world have also qualified for the exclusive Versa Challenge led by Kirsten Kline of the US, the 2021 World Rowing Indoor Champion and Canada’s Sarah Pidgen who also races internationally as a coastal rower.

For the other in person events, however, registration is open to all. There are individual races over 500 metres and 2000 metres for ages 17 through 70 plus as well as team relays where competitors must switch every 250 metres. Anyone wishing to race in person can simply register online. There is even the chance to race virtually from anywhere in the world through a qualification process. Take up the challenge like Marshall and see if you can achieve a personal best and maybe reach the podium. Click here for more information.