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Alex Gulka's 'incredible perseverance' leads to athletic & academic excellence
By Alistair BurnsAlex Gulka (centre) competes as a member of the Canadian national junior rowing crew at the Can Am Mex regatta in Oklahoma City in July. He brought home a silver and two bronze medals. "It was quite something. I had no plan to be on the national team," he said. Photo submitted to The B.C. Catholic.
The B.C. Catholic

Alex Gulka, a University of Toronto student on a $7,500 scholarship, has completely transformed from an intellectual Grade 9 student at St. John Brebeuf Regional Secondary four years ago. The Renaissance man graduated with an almost 100 per cent average and rowed with the Canadian junior team at an international regatta.

His academic brilliance came from two sources: an excellent memory for facts and figures and long hours of study. Once, for a social studies review, he typed definitions for 10 hours straight.

"I'm stubborn once I get started," Gulka explained. He spoke to The B.C. Catholic before leaving for university Aug. 25.

Once a reluctant athlete, he was "never really into contact sports." Four years ago he followed in his cousin's footsteps and joined the Fort Langley Youth Rowing Society (FLYRS).

Unlike most rowers, Gulka usually avoided rising early for workouts and trained after school. After riding a bus home for 20 minutes he would be "down at the dock by 3:45 p.m. and on the water 15 minutes later, for five days a week."

Ergometer times and stroke rates were not the only things pressing on Gulka's mind, since he had to maintain good grades in order to get into a prestigious university.

"Alex was a fantastic student at our school. He was a respectful young man (and) received numerous awards at our graduation," said Len de Julius, vice-principal of St. John de Brebeuf.

Cam Steere, president of the FLYRS, remembered when an "uncoordinated" Gulka joined the rowing club.

"Physically, he was behind a lot of the kids, but his perseverance was incredible," Steere recalled.

FLYRS coach Nadine Mross, who coached Gulka for the past three years, had a surprising admission: "He actually hates water," she said with a chuckle.

She explained that a lot of "kids come in and haven't been successful in other sports." Yet, like Gulka, they decide to try rowing.

A rowing crew builds up trust for regattas by dry-land training together. Gulka became a FLYRS club captain, and last year played a leading role in helping 20 club mates learn to row.

As his confidence grew, he decided to try out for Rowing Canada's national junior team.

In June Gulka went to the national junior trials in Welland, Ont. He made the first cut but failed to pass the second round, but his dreams were not completely dashed. When he received confirmation from Rowing Canada, asking for his uniform size, Mross's reaction was "one of amazement," and "Alex thought it was a joke."

"This is a first (for our club,)" Steere acknowledged. "We were all just overjoyed."

Gulka went to Oklahoma City to represent his country July 8 to 13 in the annual Can Am Mex regatta for athletes from Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

Gulka and company had only four days to come together as Team Canada. The U.S. team had trained together for three weeks; Mexico sent their national team.

While the odds were against the Canuck rowers, their coaches told them, "We're not going to tolerate (losing.)"

After late-night practices Gulka donned the red-and-white racing singlet for the first time against international competition. He was racing in a quadruple scull (a boat that has a four-man crew, each rower using two oars).

In the two-kilometre final, the Americans had an odd strategy, Gulka recollected. Instead of building to an all-out sprint for the last 500 metres, they "burned themselves out" by trying to row at full power for the first kilometre.

Almost exhausted from his exertion, Gulka could hear his coaches excitedly screaming, "Come on, Canada! Push it!" from the stands.

At the end of the race, with a desperate effort, the Mexicans squeaked across the finish line first, eclipsing the Canadians by less than a full boat length. The U.S. was last of the three boats.

"It was quite something. I had no plan to be on the national team (a few years ago); the reality finally kicked in: 'you raced for Team Canada; you just represented your country,'" Gulka reminisced.

He also brought home a pair of bronze medals: one in single sculls and one in the eights.

"I'm still speechless!" Mross exclaimed.

What will Gulka do now? At the University of Toronto he hopes to continue to row and to join Engineers Without Borders. His long-term goal is to attend law school and specialize in intellectual property law.

With all this in mind, Gulka's mature outlook keeps academics and athletics in perspective.

"What would my life be like without my faith?" he pondered aloud.

"In terms of etiquette and ethics, it's a huge bonus to have those moral values that come from Catholicism."

Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 September 2013 08:22  

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