Lesley Thompson-Willie
Photo credit: Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press

When Canadian coxswain Lesley Thompson-Willie won a silver medal at the 2012 summer Olympic games in London at age 53, she became a five-time Olympic medalist and only person in the sport to be a seven-time Olympian. This year, when she hits the water with the Canadian women’s 8, she’ll tie the all-time record for Olympic appearances by a woman.

Now 56 years old, Thompson-Willie says she still has room for development.

“I feel like I’m still learning and improving,” Thompson-Willie recently said in an interview. “It’s just such a privilege to work in an environment of excellence. There’s buy-in, there’s support, there’s innovation.”

Her five Olympic medals tie her as Canada’s most decorated summer Olympian with Phil Edwards (track and field) and she is the first Canadian athlete to win medals in five different Olympic Games (one gold, three silver, one bronze). Having competed in a career total of 19 World Championships, Thompson-Willie has won 10 medals (one gold, four silver, five bronze) while competing for Canada from 1980 to 2000, and returning to the national team in 2006 after a six-year retirement.

Back in 1991, Thompson-Willie was about a decade into her national team career and found herself at the world final with the Canadian women’s eight. The crew was on high, with six members having hauled in gold medals in six events the day before. Thompson-Willie was concerned the women wouldn’t find the determination or stamina to win this last event. Their start was terrible, and she was characteristically honest, telling the crew “You’re in fifth. Nope, sixth.” There were only six boats in that race.

They worked their way through the field, pulling into second place with 750m to go and a boat length to make up – a gap that can be insurmountable. As Marnie McBean, a three-time Olympic champion, later remembered:

“In a moment like that, all you’ve got is the physical sense of increasing pain as you’re progressing through the course. And you’ve got this somehow calm and intense voice that’s coming through the speakers — Lesley’s voice,” she says. “Lesley said very calmly to us, ‘You can do this, but you’ve just got to listen to me. And you’ve got to go now.’ ”

As the Unified Team in first place panicked, the Canadian women stayed focused and persisted, taking home gold.

Twenty years later, prepping for the 2012 games in London, you could still find Thompson-Willie in the weight room with the national squad. “I really don’t think I can sit there in the boat, when they’re starting to feel like they can’t go any harder, and tell them to go harder when I haven’t done it myself,” she told The Star in an interview. “I would like my heart rate to be as low as possible during the race. Personally, I believe the fitter you are, the calmer you are.”

Thompson-Willie, a teacher-librarian at South Secondary School in London, says that she could keep coxing “forever.” As she told the Toronto Star, “I’m not going to say I’m going to be retiring (after Rio)… but probably,” she said with a laugh.

Right now “all you’re thinking about is: ‘What do we need to do to go faster?’”

Photo credit: Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press