Jennifer Walinga has never regretted a decision which cost her an Olympic gold medal but earned her a special spot in Canadian sports history.
This week the Peterborough native earned two prestigious honours. She learned she will be inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame with her teammates from Canada's women's four which won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She was also announced Wednesday as a member of the Peterborough & District Sports Hall of Fame's 2013 induction class.
Walinga, 48, was an integral part of the Canadian crew which won the 1991 world championship and set a world record while going undefeated in 24 consecutive races including the Olympics. She and her crew – including Kirsten Barnes, Brenda Taylor, Jessica Monroe-Gonin and alternate Kay Worthington – were destroying the field. They'd come a long way since a disappointing seventh in Seoul, South Korea in the 1988 Olympics. Walinga was in the integral stroke seat where she set the rhythm while also steering with her feet.
She aggravated a back injury at a meet in Holland a month before the Olympics and the night before the Barcelona heats began Walinga made the heart-wrenching decision to give up her Olympic dream withdrawing to allow Worthington to take her spot. The injury was severe enough Walinga, who also withdrew from the gold medal winning eight, never rowed again. Canada edged out China in a thrilling final to claim the gold.
Since she did not row in the heats or final, the International Olympic Committee did not present Walinga with a gold medal. Had she been an alternate and not rowed, she would have received a medal. A movement was started to try to gain support for her to receive a medal but it was unsuccessful. The Canadian Sports Hall of Fame chose to include her in the crew's induction.
“it's really special. I mean it's just fantastic,” Walinga said, Saturday from Victoria, B.C. where she is a professor of communications and culture at Royal Roads University. “I feel so honoured on both counts. It's really pretty cool that both announcements happened in the same week. it's really brought back a lot of memories.”
One might think her decision to withdraw would be a low-point but Walinga says she's never questioned it.
“I was so at peace because I knew it was the right decision,” she said.. “We all did. Yeah, there were lots of tears especially with Jessie because we were pairs partners. We were all so close, we were sisters. I knew they could do it. I was so confident in them.”
A short while later while attending a wedding, Taylor, who was in both gold medal boats, presented Walinga with one of her gold medals. It was a touching moment shared between the two in a parking lot which she'll never forget. Taylor wouldn't take no for an answer, said Walinga, getting emotional as she recalled it.
“I really do feel like the luckiest person in the world to know the true meaning of the word team,” she said.
There is some synergy in the two inductions being announced in the same week because Peterborough is where it all started, says Walinga.
Craig Allen and Carol Love got her started in rowing at Peterborough Collegiate where she was also a basketball standout. Her mother Lidy Cliff raised four children as a single mom and the family never had a lot of money, said Walinga. A lot of people offered a lot of help in time and resources to help her pursue her dreams.
“All these people rallied around me and made sure I got to where I had to be,” she said. “Carol Love was my hero and still is. She was one of the first women to row at the Olympics in 1976. Rowing on the river at Trent, that's what made me fall in love with rowing. That's where the love affair started.”
Walinga coached rowing for 13 years as a teacher at St. Michael's University School in Victoria before pursuing her masters and becoming a professor.
She and her husband Craig White have three children. She now coaches her two youngest in basketball – Kincaid is 10 and Imogen 13 – while Allie, 18, has inherited her father's rugby talent. She is on the B.C. provincial team and is a candidate for Canada's Under-20 side.
“She's pursing her own Olympic dream,” said Walinga.
The Peterborough induction dinner is June 7 at the Evinrude Centre. The Canadian induction is Oct. 16 at Toronto's Sheraton Centre.