Olympic gold-medal rower Lisa Roman speaks to students at the University of the Fraser Valley on Sept. 10. Growing up, Roman learned to figure skate at North Surrey Arena and also danced with the XBa company. (Photo: Gibi Saini/UFV Athletics)

Olympic gold-medal rower Lisa Roman speaks to students at the University of the Fraser Valley on Sept. 10. Growing up, Roman learned to figure skate at North Surrey Arena and also danced with the XBa company. (Photo: Gibi Saini/UFV Athletics)

Olympic-gold rower Lisa Roman built strength from figure skating, dance in Surrey

Now, following win at Tokyo Games, the 32-year-old isn’t sure if she’ll row again, competitively

Lisa Roman is now an Olympic gold-medalist with Canada’s rowing team, but as a kid she pursued sports and activities that didn’t involve boats and water.

She was an avid figure skater at the old North Surrey Arena, where her mom Elizabeth long taught students on two blades – and still does, at the new North Surrey Sport & Ice Complex.

As a way to improve her figure-skating moves, young Lisa was also a dance student with Nela Hallwas’ XBa company in South Surrey.

Now 32, Roman says the two pursuits helped her reach the top of the podium during the recent Tokyo Summer Games, with Canada’s women’s eight rowing team.

“I would definitely say that skating helped my rowing path, and dancing too,” said the Surrey-born Roman, a longtime Langley resident.

“My strength and power, skating helped that for sure,” she added. “To be honest, I’ve never really been injured, and that has a lot to do with my background, being very mobile and limber and all of those aspects of skating and dancing, that played a huge impact on my ability to perform at the level I have. Skating and dancing definitely helped develop my muscles the way they needed to be, for rowing, for strength and power. When I started rowing I was already quite strong.”

(Story continues below video of Roman and team winning gold in Tokyo)

• RELATED STORY: Langley rowers among Canada women’s rowing gold medal Tokyo Olympic champions.

The 2021 summer in Japan was memorable for Roman, who was in the bow seat when the team won Canada’s first Olympic gold in any women’s rowing event since Atlanta 1996, and the first gold in the women’s eight since Barcelona 1992. Canada’s winning eight included fellow Langley-area rower Andrea Proske.

By her late-teens, Roman was pretty much done figure skating, competitively, with North Surrey Skating Club.

“That was kind of the peak for skating, for my ability, and I was tapering off,” she said in a phone call with the Now-Leader. “I was frustrated with where I was at.”

Roman started rowing 13 years ago, in 2008, because she wanted to try something new in her first year at the University of Fraser Valley, in Abbotsford. “It seemed simpler than figure skating,” notes a bio on Team Canada’s website, “because the harder she worked, the faster she got.”

• RELATED STORY, from 2017: North Surrey Skating Club celebrates 50th anniversary with replicated circus show.

Standing under six feet tall, Roman is considered relatively short to be a rower, but she slowly and determinedly rowed her way to international-level regattas, first in 2013.

“Rowing isn’t really a younger-tier sport like figure skating, where you really have to start at a very young age,” Roman noted. “It’s the opposite in rowing, and they say that starting in your early 20s, your 20s, the growth is kind of the opposite way.”

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Since returning home from Tokyo, Roman has talked to student-athletes at local universities, to help inspire young athletes.

She also visited XBa’s dance studio, on 152nd Street at 20th Avenue.

“I was there a long time, and I danced with Nela before her first studio, as a preteen,” Roman recalled. “I was dancing to help with skating, for core and stability. It was fun because with dancing I got more of the team aspect, being part of a team, and with skating it was an individual pursuit. Rowing is totally a team sport, in the eights, so dancing helped with that as well.”

On the water at the 2016 Rio Summer Games, Roman and the women’s eight team placed fifth.

Five years later, her Olympic trip was golden, but the thrill was muted given pandemic restrictions in Tokyo.

“Especially for the first-time Olympians, I can’t imagine that being my only Olympics, because it would seem like such a disappointment,” Roman said. “I was in Rio so I got to experience that, which was so much better in terms of the overall experience – having family there and getting to share that. But in Tokyo, there were less distractions because of all the (protocols). We could focus more, for sure.”

Because of the pandemic, no rower on the team had raced internationally in about two years before coming to Tokyo, since the eight finished fourth at the 2019 World Rowing Championships.

Now back in school, Roman recently began pursuing a master’s degree in counselling, years after graduating from Washington State University with a bachelor of science in psychology, along with a minor in human development and sports management.

She’s not sure if she’ll ever row again, competitively.

“I haven’t quite decided what my plan is,” Roman explained. “The next Olympics Games are in just three years, in Paris, so that’s enticing. It’s dependent on a lot of things, whether I go back or not. There are parts of me that what to try, and other parts of me are like, I’m done. I’m just enjoying my time off right now and trying to figure what my path is from here.

“Right now I’m sharing my knowledge to the best of my ability, and my experience,” she added. “I’m trying to convince people that anything is possible. When you’re young, you don’t think you can go to the Olympics and win a gold medal, but then it’s like, ‘Whoa, yeah you can.’”


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