Ask Helen Savin what she likes about being the new Head Coach at the Richmond Hill Canoe Club and her eyes light up as she touches the gold kayak paddle on her necklace. “Coaching is not something you do. It’s what you are.”
Savin is an expert in flatwater canoe and kayak racing, an endurance and power sport similar to its more well-known cousin, rowing. Athletes paddle kayaks and canoes on their own, in pairs or in groups of four and require a high level of balance, endurance, strength and flexibility. They train year round through a combination of on-water activities in the warm months and strength training and running in the winter.
The sport has long been a mainstay in places like Eastern Euorpe, but its popularity has been on the rise in Canada over the last few decades, led by success of athletes like Adam van Koeverden and Mark Oldershaw. At this point, the sport is growing and Canada is one of the ten fastest nations in the world thanks to expert coaches like Savin.
A Coach in the Making
Savin grew up in Karaganda in the northeastern portion of Kazakhstan, a country of mountains, lakes and rivers that was a part of the Soviet Union until 1991.
When she was 16, the famous government-run Soviet sports organization Dynamo identified Savin’s talent for kayaking and moved her away from her home to train at what is now Almaty, a city in the southeastern corner of Kazakhstan. Unlike recreational and competitive sports in Canada, where families are highly involved, this training meant being apart from her family. “My mother never saw me on the water,” Savin recalls.
Savin was the youngest person ever to join the Soviet national team and spent 6 years paddling at that level, a time that included meeting a canoe racer named Dmitriy, the national team’s captain who would later become her husband.
She competed with the national team until 1991. When she retired from racing, an event occurred that would shape the rest of Savin’s life.
In the paddling culture of Russia and Kazakhstan, where flatwater canoeing and kayaking are longstanding and popular sports, the athletes have a saying: “If you sell your paddle when you retire, you are coach.” When Savin finished competing and sold her paddle, she took it as a sign of who she was and what she was meant to do.
This inspiration led her to enrol in a kayak coaching program at the Guryev Teacher’s Training Institute in what is now Atyrau, a city at the mouth of the Ural River on the Caspian Sea. She spent six years there and completed a university degree in coaching before becoming a coach for the Kazakhstan National Team, a job that she held until 2000 when she and Dmitriy emigrated to Canada.
Savin Joins RHCC
As Head Coach at RHCC, Savin is paid a part-time salary and fits in coaching on top of her day job as an ultrasound technician. She coaches athletes in the morning, works a regular shift at a clinic, and then comes back to coach from 4:30 until 7:30 almost every weeknight. She then attends weekend regattas throughout the summer months across Ontario with athletes ranging from introductory paddlers to members of the Canadian national team.
One such athlete is RHCC and national team member Roland Varga, an Aurora resident, who is one of the younger members of the national program. Roland competes on the World Cup circuit in Europe and Australia and will likely represent Canada at the Rio Olympics in the C2 category with his partner Paul Bryant who used to live on Lake Wilcox.
RHCC is one of the smaller canoe clubs on the paddling circuit, but it is a vibrant community with a family feel. Savin’s first impressions were incredibly positive. “Everyone is so friendly and the kids are so well behaved. They help out, clean up and always say thank you. I love being with them and felt welcome right away.”
When they hired her, the RHCC Board was looking for a coach with Savin’s level of expertise. “We knew that Helen had a wealth of experience as a coach, and we were hoping she could bring a level of excellence to the club,” says Steve Willert, an RHCC Board member and long-time parent who has had three children in the program. “My daughter has progressed so much in a short amount of time. She is loving working with Helen and is having a lot of success.”
That Savin is not your typical part-time coach is evident in everything she does. On top of her involvement with the athletes, she reads research reports about training techniques, nutrition and paddling performance, in both English and Russian, and creates customized weekly training programs for each athlete.
She also brings an added bonus when her husband Dmitriy, a racer at heart who never sold his paddle, attends training sessions to work with the canoe racers. “His technique is incredible. Paddling with him really helps me improve.” says Jean Luc Cinq Mars, a 15-year-old high-performance canoer from Aurora.
An Emphasis on Character Development
The athletes in her care are young enough that they can’t remember the Soviet National Team, but they know that Savin’s takes their training very seriously. “Helen is kind and caring but she pushes you and expects you to make the most of every minute of training. If there is time for unwinding, it’s not during practice,” says Liz Zoubakina, a 14-year-old kayaker from Richmond Hill. “She is very demanding, but she has changed the way I approach the sport. I used to treat kayaking as an extracurricular activity. Now it is so much more. I love it.”
The athletes also find that Savin balances serious determination and fun. Tula Morawska, a high-performance paddler who is also a rep soccer player, recalls, “When Helen first came to our cliub, she was all smiles, but the second training began she was all business. At first it was kind of intimidating but she is also very supportive. Her approach makes me want to prove I can do it.”
Savin emphasizes independence in young athletes: “They have to develop self-sufficiency and the drive to succeed. How well they do is up to them. I want them to have fun and train their minds and souls, but what the sport means to them is something they have to decide for themselves.”
For all of the paddlers at RHCC there is widespread appreciation for the passion, energy and skill that Savin brings to her work. They are all glad that she sold her paddle.
The Richmond Hill Canoe Club is a recreational and competitive canoe and kayak club that is open to York Region residents of all ages. Offering introductory and competitive programs for canoe and kayak racers and also masters level programs including dragon boating, the club celebrates fitness and friendship along with the joys of being on the water. There is an open house on June 14th on Lake Wilcox, and you can contact the club anytime for information at firstname.lastname@example.org or 905.773.8284.