With a wellspring of enthusiasm, curiosity and optimism, there was much for Tracy to explore beyond competitive sports. She embarked on a new life rich with adventure and excitement of the senses, seemingly diverse activities that have culminated in her two greatest challenges yet: agricultural entrepreneurship and motherhood. A vintage farm in River John is the home base of both adventures: new vision and life breathed into the property by Tracy and her husband Jarret Stuart have added a sleek new home for them and their two little girls and a shiny modern distillery for Caldera brand whisky and rum. It’s a world away from the fierce and rigid life of Olympic women’s rowing, but nearly full circle for the Nova Scotia native who conquered the world and came back again to begin the life cycle anew with her own young family. And unlike the tidy lanes of her rowing past, Tracy’s life has been anything but a straight line. Her secret to success? Every bend in the road is an opportunity.
Tracy’s story began in Shubenacadie, NS, where she and her older brother Troy grew up playing Olympics in their backyard. “The doorstep was our podium. Whoever won got to stand there and the loser had to raise the arm of the winner and declare them the Champion of the World.” Her big brother, two years and a few muscles ahead of her, usually won and each time she raised his arm, Tracy vowed: one day, he will raise my hand in victory for everyone to see. In high school she excelled in every sport available. She attended Acadia University on a basketball scholarship, studying kinesiology and convinced her Olympic path was via the basketball court. But not so. “In high school I was a big fish in a little pond but in university, I was a little fish in a big pond,” she admits. “I became a benchwarmer.” She was, however, still a top student, so switched her Olympic focus from athletics to academics. “If I couldn’t go as an athlete, I could go as a member of the sports medicine team.” She was accepted to the masters of science (sport medicine) program at the University of Calgary, loved the program, was no longer a little fish in a big pond … and that was the problem. “I was like a fish out of water,” she sighed. One night, missing the ocean, she went to the Calgary reservoir and was mesmerized by the smooth, peaceful intensity of the rowers. She signed up for a week-long learn-to-row program. Seven days later she was hooked on the sport and her dream was reborn. “I told the coach, ‘I’m going to the Olympics in this sport,’ and he muttered that maybe I should make the club team first.”
Every day for the next two years she rowed at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., attending classes in between. In 2003 she began competing and winning in national competitions. She was invited to try out for the national team. Thrilled and terrified, she asked her coach for any last-minute advice and in his gruff Croatian accent he replied, “Get in front, stay in front, and don’t shit pants.”
She was shocked, not at the language but at the simplicity of it all. Yet the mantra has stuck with her, fitting any situation in which she was challenged. Her first tryout landed her 22 seconds behind the leader, an eternity away from a national seat. She came home determined to close the gap, setting goals for eating, sleeping, finances, even relationships, with every moment spent in mindfulness of her goal. “‘Will this get me closer to the Olympics?’ I would ask myself. If the answer was no, I didn’t do it.” The next year, 2004, as Canada was grooming its team for Athens, she made the first cut. Several rounds later, she was three races away from a seat. She won the first two races, but lost the third by a margin wide enough to cost her the seat. She was devastated. “I had such a belief that I would do this, had given everything I had, even my job, to do this.”
She returned to Calgary and became a rehab specialist. Working daily with brain-injured patients reclaiming their skills and lives put things in perspective. “You make a new path,” she says. She re-entered training, and to increase her chances dropped from heavyweight to lightweight. It meant losing 20 pounds from her already lean frame. A strict regimen of nutrition, training, and monitoring was required to protect her health, and counting every bite became second nature as she dropped the weight and ascended the podium time after time, posting Canada’s fastest lightweight time on record and helping lead her team to a World Championship cup. When she returned to Calgary, she had a crowd of well-wishers and media witness her brother Troy raising her arm and declaring her the Champion of the World.
It was miles and years from their backyard in Shubenacadie, yet half her dream was still miles away. Canada was sending only two lightweight rowers to Beijing. For seven years she had been part of a team, and would now have to beat all but one of them for a seat. This close, there was no stopping her. She earned a seat and her boat went on to win bronze at the 2008 Olympics. She had her Olympic medal. Her brother had raised her hand. What was left now?
“I needed breathing room, mentally and physically,” she said. She spent two months sailing the Sea of Cortez as part of a small boat crew, then moved to New York City to study at the National Gourmet Institute, specializing in healthy meals from fresh local ingredients. As a graduation gift to self, she asked a friend to consider a biking trip in Europe. Her friend came back with registration for the Tour Trans Alps, a competitive race through Germany, Austria and Italy. “I knew nothing about bike racing,” she laughed, but saw the race as a way to ease back into training and use her celebrity athlete status for a good cause. Her pitch for sponsors earned $12,000 for a fund to support Canadian elite athletes in training. After her ‘vacation’, she was back in Canada eyeing a seat on the London Olympics team. “The skills were still there. The routine felt good.” But the many factors needed to align for Olympic glory began to unravel. She broke two ribs while racing, and although she summoned the physical and mental strength to win back her seat, the chronic pain, exhaustion, and tension with her rowing partner continued to drain her spirit. Her goal to make the team had been accomplished, and 52 days before her team was to leave for London, she retired. “I didn’t expect my career to end this way, but happiness was most important.” And she was ready to come home.
Her focus now was much larger than an Olympic podium: it was a life of love, family, and adventure, with Jarret as her partner. “We were sitting on my parents’ deck, sipping Scotch, and said for fun, ‘we could make this.’ Then we did some research and realized we really could do this. Craft distilleries were a global growth industry that lent itself well to rural Nova Scotia. Farmland in River John has with their vision and ambition been given new life as home to Caldera Distillery, which in its first year of production won an international medal with its Hurricane 5 whisky that is now distributed in Nova Scotia, Alberta and recently in New York City, with London on the horizon. They built a unique efficient home on the hilltop with expansive views of their fields to cook by, dine by, and curl up by the compact fireplace on brisk winter nights. An elderly yet sturdy barn was converted into a visitor centre and a new building was added for the distillery equipment.
Jarret has become a master distiller and Tracy’s passion as a farm-to-table chef has led the way to organic production methods; they grow their own grain and distill, age and bottle their spirits on site. Amid it all, daughters Olivia, three, and Brooklyn, two, have become backyard adventurers as they play, garden and explore for hours outside. They are world travelers, too, as they accompany their parents in search of equipment and markets. For it is motherhood that has given Tracy her greatest joy and challenge yet. “I studied all kinds of books, but soon gave that up and now just go for it.” Being a rural at-home mom can be lonely, especially after her years in community with her teammates, but she loves the time to play with her girls. When she needs a break, she breathes into a yoga move or two before jumping back into the fray. “My toughest lesson is learning that as a parent there is so much I can’t control,” she admits, “but it’s an awesome feeling to be able to share everything I’ve learned with these two little girls.”