From Canada, Kirby raced at the first ever Olympic Games that included women’s rowing. She stroked for the Canadian women’s quadruple sculls at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games finishing ninth overall.

Kirby had only started rowing 16 months before the games took place at the age of 24. Before rowing, she was a top swimmer and marathon runner. Then a local lifeguard suggested she give rowing a go. Kirby did and the rest was history.

Since then Kirby has remained involved in rowing one way or another. The Canadian Olympic Federation did not attend the 1980 Olympics, however, this did not stop Kirby continuing her passion for the sport. Every event she was able to row in, she would.

World Rowing met Kirby to talk about her world of rowing.

World Rowing: Have you been to many World Rowing Masters regattas?
Sandi Kirby: Yes, seven or eight. I’ve done the last three and plan to go to Hungary in 2019. I love the atmosphere and formula of the competition. I love the audience response when the J, K, L classes row past the finish.

WR: What is your favourite boat to row?
SK: The single scull. I’ve always loved rowing the single.

WR: How often do you row at present?
SK: 4 – 5 times a week in summer and then cross-country skiing in winter. 

WR: How did you first get involved?
SK: I’d never seen rowing before I tried it. I was good at swimming and running and 16 months later I was at the Olympics. It’s a sport that gives you what you give it.

WR: Have you continued rowing right up to present or have you taken breaks from the sport?
SK: I’ve rowed everything available. The US open championships, I’ve won the Head of the Charles (Boston, USA) and the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. I left elite sport in 1981 and continued to row in masters events. I’ve always been involved in one way or another.

WR: What was it like being at the first Olympics for women rowers?
SK: It was a tough experience but one that I will always remember. I made life-long friends and it gave me the confidence and experience to speak up and step forward on matters that mattered to me, especially when talking about child safety and safeguarding. I’m proud to be part of rowing, it’s such a good and ‘pure’ sport.

WR: What was training like in the lead up to the 1976 Olympics.
SK: The male crew didn’t mind that the women were rowing. The women’s crew was given the hand-me-downs from the men’s crew. Then eventually after the Games they were given new uniforms but still male clothing. The weight training was based on the men’s weight programmes but reduce to ‘meet’ the women’s crew ‘abilities.’ People didn’t understand what was needed for the women.

WR: Were you a full-time rower during this time?
SK: I did seven hours a day of training for rowing and other than that I was a full-time teacher.

 WR: Through your academic career, you wrote the book ‘The Dome of Silence, sexual harassment and abuse in sport’. Where did the idea come from to write this book?
SK: The idea came after my first publication which was a national study on sexual harassment and abuse in sport. Results showed that it was happening throughout different levels in sport and was acted upon by the National Olympic Committee. This then lead to more and more countries becoming more proactive at looking at their systems and implement strategies for safeguarding.

 The research showed that sport athletes who are nearly going to make it are highly vulnerable. Also there are lots of athletes but not so many coaches – which makes it easy for coaches with bad intensions.

I was called by UNICEF to help them understand sport. I wrote the first consensus for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on safe sport to fight against sexual harassment.

WR: What do you think about the current wave throughout the world of people talking about sexual harassment?
SK: There is very little coming out of Asia, there’s some work out of Africa. I see that eyes are now wide open. Sport has gone past the point where they can say they’re not involved. The wave is going through everything. Some people are afraid (that they will be caught). There has been very little recognition within the sport of rowing. There has been abuse within rowing. The issue for rowing is not to wait for a case to come up, but look at how do we make sure when we do development work in rowing that child protection is in place.

WR: How was your book received back in 2000?
SK: The responses received back in 2000 were varied. Some were shocked and alarmed. There was a positive reaction from those wanting to change and improve the system but negative from those who had something lose.

WR: Tell us about your work on ‘high performance female athlete retirement’.
SK: At the time in Canada (1986), men who retired from sport had a domain to move into, job opportunities. However women retiring from sport weren’t given the same opportunities and women competing in sport wasn’t something taken seriously. Over the years this has improved and women who retire from sport have become more ‘respectable’ as well as there being more opportunities for them now in different working domains.