“When I looked to my right and saw that we were ahead of everyone with just 500 meters to go, I decided that I’ll die with them around my neck before anyone beats us to the finish line.”

This declaration belongs to Ionela Lehaci, who together with Gianina Beleagă, won gold in the Lightweight Women’s Double Sculls at the World Rowing Championships on September 30, 2017 in Sarasota, USA.

It was the first time in 18 years that Romania was awarded this title. Ionela and Gianina, both 22 years old, were the two youngest rowers in the finals. Now their sights are set on the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Separated by a Forest

Ionela and Gianina were born in 1995, just four months apart in small Bucovinian villages outside Suceava. Their home villages, Doroteia-Plutonița and Valea Moldovei, are separated by just a small forest. However, these remarkable young women never met until 2014.

For both girls, the sport of rowing began in the 8th grade when Cristi Malis, a trainer from the Sports Club of Orșova, came to their village’s school and asked the tallest students to step out into the hall for measurements.

Once a year, Cristi would recruit new athletes from all over the country. The children from the Moldovan region of Romania were always given priority.

“I’m not sure how to put it. We were healthier, maybe more accustomed to hard work. There are also rowers from Oltenia County but most of us are from Moldova. I didn’t have a bad childhood, but I worked a lot in the fields, stacking hay, cultivating potatoes. This was life in the village,” reminisces Ionela Lehaci.

Malis arrived at Ionela’s village school on a Tuesday to take her measurements and 10 days later she moved to Orsova to begin training as a rower. The ideal physical stature for a rower is long arms and short legs. Ionela was tall, but had short arms.

“As a teenager, I was extremely determined. After they came to measure us, I went home and told my parents ‘either you give me permission to go or I’ll leave!’ I have proved that determination is sometimes more important than body type”

Two months after leaving home, Ionela became the national champion in doubles for her age group. Seven years of intense and competitive training have followed.

The home villages of the two girls, separated by a forest. Image: Google Maps.

“A competitive athlete isn’t given national holidays and nowadays, weekends don’t exist either. We have ten training sessions per week and that’s about the scope of our social lives.”

Like Ionela, Malis visited Gianina’s village school when she was 13. At that time, she was the tallest student in her school, standing at 178 centimeters and her arm to trunk ratio was ideal.

Gianina completed high school in the town of Fălticeni and trained on Nada Florilor, the town’s lake. Gianina rcounts:

“Training was difficult in Fălticeni, because of the cold winters in northern Moldova. Nada Florilor Lake was still frozen when spring started. This forced us to go to Snagov for training. Sometimes, we’d go straight to the competitive events without having done any training at all the previous winter.

The harsh winters made it easier for me to balance school and sports. My cycle was school – training – sports. I never wanted the teachers to notice a difference between myself and the other students.

I didn’t want them to write me off as an athlete. I would study throughout the night even though the next day I would have to be up and ready to go.

I hesitated about continuing with rowing after I completed my Baccalaureate but I allowed myself to be pulled back into it and now look, I’m a world champion.”

Finally teammates

Ionela and Gianina trained as rowers in different junior rowing clubs. Currently, one is a member of the Dinamo Sports Club while the other is a member of the Steaua Sports Club. They finally met at the nationals in 2014.

In a very short time, they managed to bring out the best in each other and come together as a successful team. Ionela occupies the bow seat and is the rower who first crosses the finish line, whereas Gianina has the stroke seat.

They made it to the finals of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Standing at 179 centimeters and 178 centimeters respectively, they were the tallest competitors in the lightweight division.

“We are the tallest rowers. Most of the other athletes only come up to our shoulders and are very muscular. Our bodies are a disadvantage, but we don’t worry.

At the end of the day, in the lightweight category, the boat ends up carrying the same weight. Everyone weighs in around the limit of 57 kilograms. The technique is the force that thrusts you forward. That’s how you get a greater speed and less physical wear and tear. The latter is an extremely important element because our bodies are overused.

Ionela has shorter arms and mine are longer, which affects the harmony of our team. The ideal is to have the clone of yourself in the boat. But at the end of the day, we complete each other with the three things that matter most: character, determination and love for the sport.”

Love for the sport

When looking in from the outside, it is hard to understand loving the sport of competitive rowing.

The training seems horrific. A normal Sunday includes 45 miles of rowing, sandwiched between morning and evening training sessions in the gym.

Rowers never get manicures because their hands are consistently transformed into large, open wounds.

“We are often told we have the hands of a man. Our hands get used to not being on the oars in the winter, when we hold the bars differently on the rowing machine. But when we hit the water again in spring and there are waves and wind, we hold the oars as we’ve been trained to do.

That’s when you get the open wounds that are easily infected. You bandage them up and grit your teeth. Even your heart starts feeling the burn.”

The Lightweight Women’s Double Sculls podium at the World Championships in Sarasota.
Photo: Igor Meijer

Rowing does not attract the glory or attention of other sports. Children don’t grow up dreaming of becoming rowers. Society is only reminded of the sport every four years when the Olympics come around.

“It’s not pleasant to have this feeling that you’re about to die after every single training session. But there is an overwhelming sentiment when you are completely one with a powerful, smooth gliding boat. I can’t describe this feeling with words, but it is what makes you go to sleep at 10 pm each evening and forgo the fun of fellow mortals, as my boyfriend would say.

I recently saw the film Icarus, which was related to Russia’s doping scandal. I watched it feeling utterly stupefied: do these things actually happen? I am in this sport because of my passion for it. If I were to ever cheat, how would I look at myself again in the mirror? The fight that will determine the fate of our boat will be a clean one.” 

Gianina Beleagă

Next Step

Ionela and Gianina are well aware of the challenges facing them in the 2020 Olympics. The Romanian Athletic Environment has many challenges. The queen boat, the women’s eight, once the pride of Romania, didn’t make it to the Olympics in 2016 for the first time in history.

Having returned to Romania only a few days ago after winning gold in Sarasota, Ionela just purchased a wedding dress. She will be getting married on the 28th of October and is officially on vacation until November.

“Honeymoon destination? Honeymoons are for fairy tales, not for rowers. In rowing, the only thing you accumulate are wounds, not vacation time. And her future husband is also a rower, so they will be counting their wounds together.”