Buryak Wins Gold for Ukraine, Canadian Olympic Gold Medallists 2nd and 3rd as World Rowing Indoor Championships Make History In Mississauga

By Frank Christie

In a star-studded race at the 2023 World Rowing Indoor Championship (WRICH), Ukraine’s Olena Buryak came out on top over Canadian national team members Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski and Sydney Payne to claim her seventh consecutive WRICH gold medal.

While the event was taking place in-person in Mississauga, Ont., Buryak was one of several hundred athletes who competed virtually in World Rowing’s first ever hybrid event.  Despite the turmoil in her country, Buryak competed from the Olympic Sports Centre in Kyiv and crossed the finish line in a time of 6:39.9.  She was followed by Gruchalla-Wesierski (6:43.2) in second place, and Payne (6:52.6) in third, as the Canadians competed in front of a noisy hometown crowd at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre. The trio were part of a strong field in the women’s 23-39 2000m category.

“I prefer to be in person,” said Buryak after competing virtually at WRICH 2023. “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 a 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.

“It’s so inspiring to be able to race alongside her just seeing her name on my monitor was so special,” said Gruchalla-Wesierski. “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.”

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 or rowing is about friendship.  It’s about support because the world has been supporting Ukrainians in these bad times.”

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 500m age category.

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 competed at the London 2012 Olympics and finished tenth 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 2000 metres distance (6:25.6) on the erg, and her time in the 2000m still remains an indoor rowing world record for women aged 30-39. Within the 30-39 age category, Buryak also holds the world record in the 1-minute (357m), 500m (1:27.9) and 1000m (3:11.2).

Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski plants a victory kiss on teammate Sydney Payne. Photo Credit: Spencer Closs

Road to Paris 2024 Kicks Off for Two Olympic Gold Medalists Gruchalla-Wesierski and Payne, both members of the Tokyo 2020 gold medal-winning women’s eight were making their debuts at the WRICH, after a run of success on the water competing for Canada over the last several years. They had the crowd at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre in Mississauga behind them, as they both started off their 2023 competitive season with strong performances they hope will translate to continued on-water success in a pre-Olympic year.

“Honestly, I’m proud of how close we were to Olena,” said Gruchalla-Wesierski after the race. “She’s held the world record for so long, she’s deeply respected and to be within a few seconds of her is just huge, especially at this point in the season where we’re just getting out of volume so we’re pretty proud.”

Gruchalla-Wesierski (Calgary), formerly a competitive alpine skier, transitioned to rowing after a broken leg ended her skiing career. She picked up rowing at the Calgary Rowing Club at the age of 23 and made her debut on the national team just four years later. Six weeks prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Gruchalla-Wesierski was involved in a bike crash that almost ended her Olympics dreams. The crash resulted in a broken right collarbone, a bruised hip, and 56 stitches, but just three weeks after she was told by an orthopedic surgeon that her season was over, she was on the water in Japan helping Canada row to a memorable gold medal.

“That final stretch was just trying to empty the tank and give everything we’ve got, see what happens and try to hang with Kasia,” laughed Payne.

Payne, who was born and raised in Toronto, has been a member of RCA’s national team since 2018. She made her Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, helping the eight to the first Olympic gold medal for the Canadian women’s rowing team since 1992. She’s also coming off a strong 2022 season where she helped the women’s eight to a silver medal at World Cup III in Lucerne,

Switzerland in July, and a bronze medal at the 2022 World Rowing Championships in Račice, Czech Republic in September.

Both athletes see the value in how a competitive indoor event at this point in the calendar helps their focus for the important season ahead.

“Any time we get to get on the start line and practice the race nerves, getting in the zone, dealing with distractions, and getting to go through a whole race is hugely important, we don’t get to race very often in rowing,” said Payne. “So even if it’s indoors it’s a great opportunity.”

“I think we both felt the nerves today, and it was really nice to feel that again ,” said Gruchalla-Wesierski. “Our old teammate used to say ‘pressure is a privilege’ all the time and I think that’s really resonating with us at this point in the season.”

Buryak, Gruchella-Wesierski and Payne were in one of the marquee events on the weekend. They were joined by more than 1,800 competitors from around the world who either competed in-person at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre, or joined the action “virtually”, in what was the first-ever World Rowing Indoor Championship to ever be held in Canada.