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Blandford, Kirchmann go golden at Canada Games

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Claudia Blandford took up rowing almost as an afterthought.

The Winnipeg Rowing Club was just a five-minute walk from her home in Norwood Flats and she figured it would be a good way to get into shape for her first passion -- playing highly competitive basketball in high school and on the provincial developmental team.

So three years ago, Blandford took that short walk. She's been rowing ever since.

And with a dramatic gold-medal performance in the women's single scull at the Canada Summer Games in Prince Edward Island on Friday, that short walk might yet take Blandford, 20, all the way to the London Olympics in 2012.

"It feels really great," Blandford said in a phone interview immediately after the race. "There were a lot of really good girls in that final so it feels good to come out (with a gold medal)."

Blandford's gold came on a remarkable day for Manitoba, which saw the province take down a total of five medals -- including another gold later in the day in cycling by Leah Kirchmann. Manitoba had just two medals, none gold, coming into the day.

Kirchmann won gold and Manitoba teammate Karlee Gendron won silver in the female criterium in cycling.

"It was a really intense race," Kirchmann said of an event that is actually a series of races within a race. "And it was fantastic what Karlee did too. She had a great race."

Blandford's gold-medal victory cements what many had already suspected about her coming into this week -- that in a country that expects world-class results from its vaunted rowing program, Blandford is one of the nation's top young prospects.

A mechanical engineering student at the University of Virginia -- where she attends on a rowing scholarship -- much was expected of Blandford coming into this week and she delivered on all of it Friday.

The parallels between Blandford and another Winnipeg rower, Colleen Miller, are striking.

Both women got their start at the Winnipeg Rowing Club and both first burst on to the national scene with surprise victories at the pinnacle of Canadian rowing, the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, where Blandford won gold last year.

Miller parlayed her Henley success in 1990 into an appearance at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Blandford says she has the same Olympic dream, but wonders if London might be overly optimistic for an athlete who was still spending all her time bouncing a ball just three years ago.

"I had no idea what rowing was until my Grade 11 year in high school," Blandford said.

"And then after a month or so, I was better at rowing than I ever was at basketball."

Blandford knows all about rising above her own low expectations.

Her gold came in a week when she struggled in the heats -- and in her head. "I really lost my confidence and I started to rethink my goal, that maybe even silver was out of reach.

"I was pretty intimidated... So on Wednesday, which was our day off, I thought, 'OK, there's all these things freaking me out -- What can I do to make it my race again?'

"And I thought, 'There's nothing I can do except my own race plan... So right from the start gun, I kept my head in the boat, didn't look where anyone else was and just focused on executing my plan."

Her plan worked to perfection as she first reeled in B.C.'s Lauren Wilkinson -- who she'd never beaten before -- and then Ontario's Laura Cowal en route to a comfortable two-second victory in a time of 4:55.06.

The golds by Blandford and Kirchmann and the silver by Gendron overshadowed somewhat the exploits of the province's triathlon team, which added silver and bronze team medals on Friday to the individual silver Sarah-Anne Brault won on Tuesday. Brault, Rachael Edwards and Stevie Moore won silver in the women's team triathlon, while Josh Drad, Riley MacCharles and Mark Okany won bronze in the men's team triathlon.

The three medals won by the small triathlon team represent almost one-half of the seven medals Manitoba has won so far.

"We've been together all year and we're like a family," Brault said this morning. "We had a really good team and we came together for this."

Manitoba's only other medal so far this week -- a bronze -- came in men's doubles tennis on Thursday.

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