In the moment, what Nadya Crossman-Serb felt most were muscles on fire, lactic acid flooding arms that pushed at the water.
This is the price to be great. Not everyone is willing to pay it. Not everyone could kneel in a narrow canoe on a Czech Republic river, speeding past wildflowering fields but giving no focus to them. Above the flat water where Crossman-Serb and her partner raced, cows blinked lazily from the banks; all the young Winnipeg paddler thought about was the 500 metres ahead, and the pain.
That part, the searing consequence of hard work, set in after 30 seconds. Looking back, Crossman-Serb described the May 29 World Cup race as "the most pain ever." She is not lamenting the effort: she says this in a bright teenager’s patter, chatting in the lounge of the Manitoba Canoe and Kayak Centre on Churchill Drive, where she trains.
"It starts to be like, ‘oh, here we go,’ " Crossman-Serb said, and traces the path of the muscle aches through her limbs. "You just kind of have to hold on. It’s like, a choice you make during the race. If you want to really go for it, you just have to go."
On that day, she chose to go. Together with her C2 partner, Ontario paddler Katie Vincent, Crossman-Serb powered to the finish in a time of 2:03.210. It was two seconds faster than the second-place Brazilian crew; only months after making her senior debut, Crossman-Serb had captured her first World Cup gold medal.
It’s an achievement that builds Crossman-Serb’s buzz as a rising star of Canadian paddling. And yet, after she and Vincent returned to dry land, euphoria did not sweep them away. That golden moment was precious. It is also a promise of what’s to come, the first of many such winning steps they hope to take on the way.
"It was really exciting and cool, but I think we’re so focused on what’s next," she said. "We were thinking about the future a lot."
To be more specific, the pair was thinking about the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where women’s canoe is likely to make its Olympic debut. But here’s something strange: long before the Games were even an option, Crossman-Serb firmly believed she would one day race on the world’s greatest stage.
"It’s really crazy to talk about, but when I started canoeing, there was never a doubt in my mind," she said. "I just thought, ‘it’s going to happen, it has to happen.’ "
The change didn’t come easy. For decades, women paddlers fought to bring gender equality to the Olympic program, though critics pointed to concerns about the depth of the world women’s canoe field. Their movement scored a big victory in February 2013, when the International Canoe Federation voted to add women’s events for 2020; in January of this year, the ICF approved a Tokyo program that includes women’s C2 500, C1 200, and C1 slalom.
As momentum for the women’s canoe inclusion grew, coach Jerome Seremak began to see a change in one of his most talented young paddlers. He’s worked with Crossman-Serb since she was about 11, and knew she adored the sport. About a year ago, it seemed to the coach a switch flipped in his student. She began hitting the weights harder and fine-tuning her diet. Her whole training regimen grew more intense.
"She decided she wanted to be one of the best," Seremak said. "Having that opportunity to go to Olympic Games, that makes a huge difference. She might be at the first one. She’s set on that. She knows now she needs to work harder, because all the people in the world are going to get stronger and faster."
Uphill battles are not new to Crossman-Serb. At 19, she is younger than most athletes on the World Cup tour; there is also the fact that in a sport where many athletes leverage lanky frames, she is a compact 5-2 powerhouse of spirit and muscle. To adapt, she uses a longer paddle, and the block that braces her knee is set eight centimetres higher than that of most other competitors.
"It was never an issue," Seremak said. "Like anything else, you just need to be creative. She’s probably the strongest girl on the tour."
What Crossman-Serb needs now is experience. She’s been traveling the world to train and compete, and set new personal bests in May’s national team trials; she also admits she’s wrestled with nerves, at the senior level.For instance, at the same World Cup event where she won that gold medal, she had a disappointing C1 performance and didn’t make it out of her solo heat.
(On that note, Crossman-Serb is headed to Montreal for the U23 and junior national team trials this weekend, which will select the junior and U23 world championship teams. She’s excited for the opportunity, seeing it as a chance to get back into her C1 stride.)
To help steel the nerves, Crossman-Serb has enlisted the help of a sports psychologist. There is another place she finds strength, and it too is a key part of her story: Crossman-Serb is a rising paddling star. She is also a dual Libyan-Canadian citizen and a Metis woman, one of countless young Canadians who find inspiration in an identity that transcends borders.
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Yeah, she laughs, it’s a different mix. Her father, Ramadan Serb, came to Winnipeg from Libya to attend the University of Winnipeg; here, he fell in love with a Metis woman, Laurie Crossman, and made Manitoba his permanent home. Crossman-Serb would grow up as the youngest of four siblings; her 21-year-old brother, Mohamed, is also an accomplished paddler.
To be a daughter of many cultures is "awesome," she said, and it offers a well of support. On Facebook, a Libyan youth group regularly cheers her progress; shortly after her World Cup win, a Winnipeg Muslim community page linked to her biography with a beaming caption: "one of ours." These connections are "huge" in her life, she said; they have also shaped her drive.
Part of it, she said, is understanding the struggles her family faces back in Libya. In 2013, Crossman-Serb competed for the country at the African championships; it was her second international competition, and it would prove an eye-opener. "It was cool to go there and meet all the people who paddle in Africa," she said. "It’s such a cool community. They work so hard."
This experience also shapes Crossman-Serb’s dreams. The first one, of course, is the Olympics. But when her career is over, she thinks, she might travel to Africa and teach kids there how to paddle. Her love of the sport started at the Manitoba Kayak and Canoe Centre on Churchill Drive, just a short walk from her home; now, she hopes to share it across the world.
"That’s what I want to do," she said. "Little girls and boys over there, they don’t get as much opportunity with sports, especially the girls, I think. I got so lucky being able to grow up here, and be able to live so close to the canoe club."
Trains: Manitoba Canoe and Kayak Centre, 80 Churchill Drive
At a Glance: A full-time athlete, Crossman-Serb started in kayak but switched to canoe several years ago. She had a breakout season in 2015, becoming the fastest right-handed paddler at senior national team trials making her senior World Championship debut in Milan. She was named the Manitoba Paddling Association’s female athlete of the year.
Now, she’s fresh off her first World Cup gold medal, earned in the Czech Republic last month, and looking to book a ticket to the age-group worlds when the Canadian junior and U23 national team trials kick off in Montreal on June 24.