Transforming the world overnight is impossible, but small conversations here and there can be the kindling for greater change.
As parts of the world went through difficult times with a pandemic and social injustices, last spring University of Victoria Vikes women’s rower Olivia Zachariah was inspired to do her part while isolated on an island in a different country than her team.
“Nobody asked her to do anything. Everything she does comes from within. She is a very special person and a fantastic leader for our program,” said Vikes women’s rowing head coach Barney Williams.
Zachariah was primed to help the Vikes capture their third-straight Brown Cup, this time with the varsity boat. A few weeks before launching on the Gorge Waterway, she heard whispers from her American friends and family about the coronavirus that was threatening their sports scene.
“I didn’t think that COVID would impact my rowing and academic career at first, but it quickly became a reality and I was headed home after our biggest race of the season got cancelled,” said Zachariah.
Retreating to Bainbridge Island, Wash., Zachariah wore a mask and hunkered down while waiting for things to clear up.
Instead, things got worse. Much worse.
Following the deaths of African-American individuals such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery (among others), citizens in the United States and around the world began to protest the justice system.
Despite being in pain, Zachariah stayed in, watched the news and gathered her thoughts.
“I’ve been aware about these social issues for a while now. These were just more incidents and it struck me that we need more attention than what they were getting,” said the third-year rower. “It’s a very big issue to tackle and a complicated one. I was lucky enough to bring it to our coach and Rowing Leadership Council to see if there was anything that our team and our rowing community could do.”
The Rowing Leadership Council was an in-house group started by Williams as a way to connect the veterans with the incoming class of rowers.
Its inaugural year was Zachariah’s first with the Vikes, and midway through the 2018-19 season. She was named the frosh captain to represent the younger crew.
“When she started out, she brought a really strong voice for the freshmen group of girls. I’ve enjoyed watching her progress on and off the water, taking on more of a leadership role within the team. She’s made the most of this opportunity and I’m looking forward to what she has in store next,” said rowing captain McKenna Simpson.
Nearly two years later, and those leadership skills manifested themselves during a tumultuous time.
Since June, Zachariah had engaging conversations with her coaching staff and fellow rowers with various backgrounds, as they spoke about what was going on in the world around them and how they felt about it.
“They were very powerful meetings. It was great to see our team be open to some difficult conversations and want to stand behind the messages that we were talking about,” said Zachariah.
Eventually, she led the women’s rowing program through an Anti-Racism Education Program.
“The hardest part was to get the conversation started. Once we got going, the workshop became a catalyst and people began saying what was on their mind. It felt like we were accomplishing something,” said Zachariah.
Zoom calls ranging from big groups to one-on-one chats took place over the coming weeks, as a stronger bond was formed between teammates. Those talks inspired Zachariah to attempt to bring about more change. In September, she formed the Women’s Rowing Inclusion and Diversity Committee with four other members from her team.
The new committee meets monthly to discuss relevant issues. This past month they spoke and shared articles on gender equality and inclusion in rowing. Next month, they will pick a new topic to cover, as Zachariah hopes to see the group continue to grow support for the work that is being taken on and increase the toolkit necessary for taking action.
“I was really impressed to see everything she has done. There was something happening in the world that impacted her and she has done a really good job working with our team to bring that topic to the forefront of all our minds,” said Simpson. “She has the confidence and desire to make a change. She has our full support in this initiative.”
The bond within the boat is crucial for the 5-foot Zachariah, as she has coxed the varsity eight+ and lightweight four+ at the Canadian University Rowing Championships, winning three silvers along the way.
While Zachariah is currently helping out within the Seattle rowing community, attending USA Rowing seminars online and working out on her own. Zoom calls with the Vikes – both thought-provoking and light-hearted – have kept her in tune with her team, despite being isolated in a different country.
“We have a great team environment with weekly conversations. Even though I’m not there physically, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on the energy. I’m proud to be part of this team,” said Zachariah.
The American coxy remains stateside for the next few months, she figures. Her plans are to continue her education and training from afar, with eyes on returning to Canada to complete her quarantine in January 2021.
And if she continues her social work on the side, whenever she returns to campus, the world will definitely be a better place.