Rower Kai Bartel wins gold in the breathtaking men’s 8-man race
The success at the Games is his latest step towards living the Olympic dream
In the calm before the storm, water laps gently against the sides of seven carbon fiber racing shells as they line up arcball after arcball.
With starting positions set, rowers await the sound of the horn to begin their quest for a gold medal.
In rowing, the men’s and women’s 8 races are marquee events, much like the 100 meters on the track – The Big One.
But just before the grueling intensity of the race kicks in, Kai Bartel shares a wink and smile with his opponents, as always.
As if on cue, he leaps forward, muscles tense, as the Team Ontario men’s Eight-boat breaks free of the crowd.
Six minutes and 2,000 meters later, the Niagara-on-the-Lake native and his teammates cross the finish line at Royal Henley Circuit.
They are 42/100 seconds ahead of British Columbia, a blink of an eye – and 14 seconds, an eternity at this level, ahead of bronze medalists Alberta.
Mission accomplished. Elated, arms raised and fists pounding, Bartel and his crew unleash a flood of emotions to celebrate their win, “the hard work we put into the boat and it’s paying off.”
Just three hours before the 8th men’s final on Saturday, August 20, Bartel rode in men’s doubles with partner Shane Keagan from Fonthill and missed a medal position by seconds.
“I was a little disappointed with the pair that we didn’t win a medal, but I was more focused on riding the 8 than the pair,” Bartel said in an interview on Monday, his 20th birthday.
Redemption was not long in coming for both him and Keagan in the 8-man race.
At the start of the men’s race 8, the Ontario team was more motivated because they knew the people in the British Columbia boat and the competitive spirit was much higher, he said.
And BC was the fastest boat in heats, almost four seconds faster than Ontario.
With such a short window of time between two important medal races, each athlete has their own way of making sure they’re ready.
“I take a lot of caffeine before races, it makes me really excited,” said Bartel. “And I’m not a serious pre-race guy, so I like to keep it light.”
But the second a race starts, he’s fully focused, with his head in the boat.
Bartel admitted that winning the gold medal on Saturday changed his focus in the last 50 meters of the race.
With him and his crew only a few boat lengths from the finish line, “I literally just stared at the other boat the whole time,” his whole body crunching and pulling, wishing the Ontario boat gold.
For Bartel, rowing is a family affair that is literally in his blood.
His father Paul rowed from St Catharines and his cousin Owen Bartel from St Catharines competed in the 2022 Summer Games and won 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 autumn and winter months, Bartel studies at the University of Victoria where he studies commerce. He’s on his way there now, this week on a road trip to BC with his dad.
He hopes to “get in the college boat at UVIC for the coming year and then I’ll get ready for next year’s U23 championships in Bulgaria.”
The eight-man men’s squad for the 2022 Summer Games includes several other racers from across Niagara, but they literally came together as a team during the week of competition.
“I feel like we’re all rowing in the same caliber,” Bartel said.
“We understand what needs to be done to win, so we all pulled ourselves together pretty quickly.”
The team and individual performances on the water at Port Dalhousie last week were invaluable experiences that taught the athletes a lot about themselves and their sport.
At nearly 6ft 4, with broad shoulders and a lean build, Bartel is no small fella, but one of the things he learned from his gold medal race is that will and desire can triumph.
“IIt doesn’t matter how big you are and how fast you are. We beat a boat full of guys who were bigger than us.”
With a gold medal around his neck, Bartel says the Canadian Summer Games experience is just another step towards his Olympic dream.
He’s confident he’s on the right track and hopes to follow other rowers like Trevor Jones, who brought gold at the 2017 Canada Games to a spot on the Olympic team.
Meanwhile, the dawn training sessions and daily skill development continue as he strives to build on this summer’s success.