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Wednesday, September 28, 2022
Rower Kai Bartel wins gold in heart-stopping men’s 8 race
Rower Kai Bartel and wrestler Zubin Gatta brought home gold medals from the Canada Summer Games.
Rower Kai Bartel and wrestler Zubin Gatta brought home gold medals from the Canada Summer Games. Richard Harley

Games success is his latest step on road to living the Olympic dream

In the calm before the storm, water laps softly against the sides of seven carbon fibre racing shells as they line up bow ball to bow ball. 

With starting positions set, the rowers await the sound of the horn to kick off their quest for a gold medal.

In rowing, the men’s and women’s 8 races are marquee events, similar to the 100 metres in track – The Big One.

But just before the gruelling intensity of the race kicks in, as he always does, Kai Bartel shares a wink and a smile with his opponents.

On cue, muscles surging, he lunges ahead as the Team Ontario men’s 8 boat breaks free of the crowd. 

Six minutes and 2,000 metres later, the Niagara-on-the-Lake native and his teammates skim across the finish line of the Royal Henley race course.

They’re 42/100ths of a second ahead of British Columbia, a blink of an eye – and 14 seconds, an eternity at this level, in front of the bronze medallists from Alberta.

Golden!

Mission accomplished. Elated, arms raised, fists pounding, Bartel and his crew release a torrent of emotion to celebrate their win, “the hard work we put into the boat and having it all pay off.”

Only three hours before the men’s 8 final on Saturday, Aug. 20, Bartel raced in the men’s pair with partner Shane Keagan of Fonthill, missing a medal position by seconds. 

“I was a little disappointed from the pair, that we didn’t medal but I was more focused on racing the 8 rather than the pair,” Bartel said in an interview Monday, his 20th birthday.

Redemption wasn’t long off for both him and Keagan in the 8s race.

Going into the men’s 8 race, the Ontario crew was more motivated because they knew people in the British Columbia boat and the competitive drive was much higher, he said.

And B.C. was the fastest boat in the heats, almost four seconds faster than Ontario.

With such a short time frame between two important medal races, every athlete has their own way of making sure they’re ready.

“I take a lot of caffeine before racing, which gets me really hyped up,” Bartel said. “And I am not a serious guy before races, so I like to keep it light.”

But the second a race starts, he’s totally focused, his head totally in the boat.

In Saturday’s gold medal win his focus changed during the last 50 metres of the race, Bartel admitted. 

As he and his crew were just a few boat-lengths from the finish line, “I was literally just staring at the other boat the whole time,” his entire body grinding and pulling and wishing the Ontario boat to gold.

Rowing is a family affair for Bartel, literally in his blood.

His father Paul rowed out of St. Catharines and his cousin Owen Bartel, from St. Catharines, competed in the 2022 Summer Games, winning gold and silver.

Kai’s mother Lesley and 17-year-old sister Emma are among his biggest supporters. And his youngest sister, Kennedy, started rowing this year.

During the fall and winter months, Bartel studies at the University of Victoria where he is majoring in commerce. He’s on his way there now, on a road trip to B.C. with his dad this week.

He hopes to get “into the varsity boat at UVIC for this upcoming year and then I’m gearing up for the under-23 championships next year in Bulgaria.”

The men’s 8 crew for the 2022 Summer Games includes several other racers from across Niagara, but they literally came together as a team the week of the competition.

“I feel like we’re all rowing in the same calibre,” Bartel said.

“We understand what needs to get done in order to win, so we all gelled together pretty quickly.”

The team and individual performances on the water at Port Dalhousie last week were invaluable experiences, teaching the athletes a lot about themselves and their sport.

At almost 6 foot 4, with broad shoulders and a lean build, Bartel is not a small guy, but one of the things he learned from his gold medal race is will and desire can triumph.

“It doesn’t matter how big you are and how fast you are. We beat a boat full of guys that were bigger than us.”

With a gold medal around his neck, Bartel says the Canada Summer Games experience is just one more step on the road to his Olympic dream.

He’s confident he is headed in the right direction and hopes to follow in the wake of other rowers, like Trevor Jones, who spun Canada Games gold in 2017 into a spot on the Olympic team.

In the meantime, the training sessions at the break of dawn and daily skill development will continue as he strives to build on this summer’s success.