First Ever Versa Challenge a Big Hit With Spectators and Athletes WRICH 2023

The World’s Most Versatile Rowers Crowned Champions

By Alan Oldham

For the first time in history, World Rowing crowned two Champions of a completely new kind as Elizabeth Gilmore (USA) and Joel Naukkarinen (FIN) not only survived but dominated the world’s most intense indoor rowing challenge at the 2023 World Rowing Indoor Championships (WRICH 2023) in Mississauga this weekend. The World Rowing Versa Challenge pitted ten of the fastest women and eight of the fastest men on the planet against each other in a series of wildly diverse distances and formats on the rowing machine.

Hometown Heros

An astonishing five Canadians (two women and three men) qualified to race in this elite group.  Jason Marshall led the men winning a silver medal, while Daniel Viger and Jordan Monnink each had their moments. Canadian coastal rower Sarah Pidgen and Heather Petraszko competed hard. The challenge attracted athletes from diverse backgrounds who all share a love for pushing themselves on the rowing machine and a drive to be among the best in the world.

Jason Marshall

“It was very difficult,” said Vancouver fire fighter Jason Marshall following just the first event on day one of the two-day series. “I’m now dreading the second workout.” Fortunately for the athletes and spectators, Marshall along with the other Versa racers managed to push past any doubts and what transpired was a series of events that left the rowers panting for air and the crowd in Mississauga’s Paramount Fine Foods Centre cheering for more.

The support from Canadian fans for their Versa racers was incredible and Marshall, who has a history of competing for his country as a member of Team Canada in rugby, proudly represented the Maple Leaf in rowing with Canada’s top score in the men’s Versa races, including a win in the Bull’s Eye challenge. He said despite being exhausted at the end he’s game for the next Versa Challenge in 2024. 

Sarah Pidgen

On the women’s side, Canada’s top Versa rower was Sarah Pidgen. The Barrie-born geological engineer has had a successful on-water racing career at Queen’s University and more recently three back-to-back appearances for Canada at the World Beach Sprint Finals. Despite the unknowns of the Versa Challenge, Pidgen took it all in stride: “I’ve had a lot of rowers saying ‘that’s really brave of you not knowing what the challenges are’, but I don’t see it as any different than showing up at a practice and not knowing what the workout will be.”

“The fact that the World Indoors was coming to Mississauga, made me want to compete,” said Pidgen, who is also the president of the Don Rowing Club of Mississauga located due south of the race venue.  “I opted for the Versa Challenge because I wanted something exciting. It helps me keep motivated in my training.” Specifically, that training is focused on Beach Sprints, a discipline in which Pidgen intends to represent Canada again this summer.

Finland’s Joel Naukkarinen wins the Versa Challenge. Photo credit: Spencer Closs


The team relay on dynamic rowing “sliders” was one of the craziest and most exciting events in the Versa Challenge. With the rowers put into teams based on their individual rankings, these groups of perfect strangers were given minimal practice time. The challenge demanded they literally pull together as the ergometers were physically attached and moving as one during the race. 

“We only found out last night that we would be racing on sliders,” said Pidgen. “We really only had 20 minutes of practice together this morning.” Despite this, Pidgen’s team was dominant in the event, besting the opposing women’s team by several hundred metres over the 48-minute grind of the race.

“Our theme was just smooth rhythm,” said Pidgen of the strategy that put them way ahead in the event and gained valuable points in each rower’s individual standing for the overall Versa Challenge.


American Elizabeth Gilmore came into the Versa Challenge ranked second in the qualifiers. She finished with gold and a new title of World’s Most Versatile Rower.  The silver medalist at the 2022 World Rowing Indoor Championships  in the Women’s 2000 metre 30-39 age group recently inherited a farm from her uncle, Big Al (who passed away in March 2022. Gilmore mentioned that her Uncle Al ‘s last voicemail to her was a congratulatory one about her silver medal at the 2022 WRICH. This is her first World Championship victory.

“It was amazing,” she said on the medal podium. As for her favourite event, “it was the team event,” she said and when asked if she would be defending the title next year, she was straight to the point, “I would love to.”

The men’s challenge went to Finland’s Joel Naukkarinen, a multiple gold medalist in recent years at the World Rowing Indoor Championships. Most recently, he earned a bronze medal at the World Rowing Beach Sprint Finals. Naukkarinen has balanced his training with medical school where he studies clinical neurophysiology. Whether racing on the water or on a rowing machine, Naukkarinen’s graduate and postdoctoral work focuses on how people feel and combat fatigue, which is an excellent fit for the Finnish rower.

“This sport has been a big part of my life these past ten years,” said the newly minted World Rowing Versa Champion. When asked about future plans, he says it will be all about making his on-water rowing faster. “I’ve put a lot of effort into it, so I think I will focus my effort on the water.”

With rowers and supporters from 60 nations including a number of Olympic and World Champions on site or connecting live online from all over the world, the two days of racing at the World Rowing Indoor Championships were action packed beyond the Versa Challenge as well.