Twenty years ago Sara Hopkins was a trailblazer for the many canoe and kayak competitors who have gone on to compete internationally.
When she was 13, Hopkins and a group of her friends took a course to learn how to kayak with the Ridge Canoe and Kayak Club.
“I became obsessed, and they all moved on with their lives,” she said.
“I have a competitive spirit, and when I do something I want to be the best at it.”
Hopkins also had a coach with the local club who inspired her, and convinced her she could be a special athlete.
“He singled me out, and said ‘You could go somewhere.’”
He was absolutely right – Hopkins would go on to compete with the Canadian Women’s Sprint Kayak team from 2002 to 2005, winning gold medals in international competition along the way.
She will be one of four athletes honoured at the annual Hometown Heroes Night – when some of the community’s greatest athletes are honoured – being held after a two-year absence on Oct. 12 at Garibaldi Secondary School. Brian Malfesi and Hopkins are the 2020 inductees, Maggie Coles-Lyster for 2021, and Jaycee Affeldt for 2022.
That early coach very likely saw a girl with obvious physical strength.
Her father Gerry was “health nut,” who set up a home gym at their place in Stave Falls, and had his family pumping iron.
“I had unusual upper body strength,” she said, noting that she was once able to bench press a whopping 265 pounds.
She loved being part of the paddling club at Whonnock Lake, where she formed strong friendships, and kayaking became part of her life.
“I wasn’t one of those people who always had the goal of being on the national team,” she said. “What kept me in sport was the camaraderie, and the routine.”
It wasn’t easy. All of the best paddlers were in Eastern Canada, and a kid from B.C. faced challenges.
“The sport I chose – or the sport that chose me – suffers from underfunding in the West,” she said. “Any competitive kid in B.C. has an added obstacle.”
She went to high school at Garibaldi secondary, had a good paddling career as a junior, and then went to university. She stopped training, and had some fun.
Then she watched the Sydney Olympics in 2000, while working a summer job at Strathcona Park Lodge in Campbell River, and the desire to compete came back.
“I just felt ‘I’m wasting my talent,’” she said. “I clawed my way back into shape, and made the national team.”
Hopkins raced internationally as both an individual, in pairs and in a four-person crew.
“My fondest memories are working in a crew boat,” she said. “It’s a great feeling when it all comes together.”
In 2002, she competed at the World Canoe and Kayak Championship in Spain, for her first international race.
“That was great experience for me,” she said.
That same year, she competed at the World University Championships in Italy. The port city of Bari hosted the event, and she remembers it for being on a wild ocean course, where one four-person kayak was actually swamped and sank.
“There were a lot of big rolls,” she remembered.
Then 2003 brought the World Cup event in Poznan, Poland, where she won a gold medal with her longtime doubles partner Karen Furneaux.
“That was something else. What I remember most from that race is putting everything together perfectly in that moment, and having someone to celebrate that with.”
Furneaux, a Nova Scotia athlete, would go on to win nine medals at the world championships and compete in three Olympics during her long career.
Hopkins should have competed in the Olympics. She was part of a Canadian K4 team that qualified for the Games, but even though she had raced with the qualifying team, another woman competed at the Athens 2004 Games in her place. Hopkins was an alternate.
She couldn’t help but feel it was unfair, and that experience made her get into sports administration, to try and create more transparency and fairness in sport. Hopkins is now a director with Canoe and Kayak B.C.
But she is grateful the opportunities she had as an athlete.
“I was very privileged to be able to pursue sport.”
Along the way she got a teaching degree, then became a lawyer, working in Northern B.C.
“I miss competing, and I miss that feeling where your boat just flies – I can’t get that feeling now,” she said with a laugh.
Hopkins said she was surprised to learn she had been chosen as one of Maple Ridge’s Hometown Heroes.
“It’s a huge honour,” she said. “When I started paddling, I didn’t have any grand designs or big plans.”
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