Rachel Davis, right, and her rower, Micheen Thornycroft of Zimbabwe, were getting ready for the 2012 Samsung World Rowing Cup near Munich, Germany last week. Erol Gurian/Special to the Record
Right about now, Rachel Davis is bobbing in a boat on a lake somewhere in Zimbabwe, flanked by an armed man on the lookout for crocodiles.
The Cambridge-raised rowing coach may have taken the most roundabout route possible to the Olympics. But as a Canadian who has found her calling in Africa, she’s used to the unconventional.
And if that means years spent waking before the sun to dodge crocs and hippos and practising at a lake that is disappearing due to drought, so be it. When you’re headed for Eton Dorney, host site of all rowing events in the 2012 London Olympics, it all makes for a better story, anyway.
Davis is going to her first Olympic Games thanks to her work with a young Zimbabwean rower: 24-year-old Micheen Thornycroft, a former student of hers who she’s taken under her wing like a daughter, grooming her to do something no African rower has ever done before.
Growing up in Preston as a multi-sport athlete, Davis always wanted to go to the Olympics. But it’s a safe bet she never assumed it would be as a rowing coach in Zimbabwe, a landlocked country where seven out of 10 people live below the poverty line and the sport remains the pursuit of only a small handful of citizens.
“Let’s just say it’s not one of the top 10 African sports,” Davis said in an interview from Munich where she was preparing for a rowing World Cup event.
Davis was once a star inside and outside the gym at Preston High School, excelling at basketball, soccer, volleyball, track and field and cross-country running. It wasn’t until she went to Ottawa’s Carleton University that she took up rowing — a move that would lead to a coaching career.
She was sent to Zimbabwe in 1996 by FISA, the international rowing organization, with the mission to spread the sport in the African country. She married, put down roots, started a family and never left.
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