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Alumna and world champion rower to volunteer at Pan Am and Parapan Am Games

Dr. Jane Thornton: "I know how well we can pull together as a city"

I was a total non-athlete who discovered rowing in high school," says the former world champion (photo courtesy Rowing Canada Aviron)

As the countdown to the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games continues, U of T News meets with members of the University of Toronto community volunteering and competing in the Games – including recent grad Jane Thornton.

Dr. Thornton, who received her medical degree from the University this June, is a member of the TO2015 Athlete Advisory Council, supporting and representing the views and interests of world-class athletes to help ensure best performances at the Games.

A member of Canada’s national women’s rowing team since 2002, Thornton is a 2006 World Rowing Champion and 2008 Olympian. She has been a member of eight world championship teams, and is a three-time national champion and an eight-time national university champion. In recognition of her accomplishments, she has been awarded the Rowing Canada International Achievement Award and the Centennial Medal for her outstanding contribution to the sport of rowing in Canada. Thornton is also an athlete ambassador for Right to Play Canada.

Writer Jelena Damjanovic spoke to Thornton about her secret to juggling so many responsibilities – the highlights, challenges and plans for the future.

How have you been able to balance the demands of an academic life with the rigours of an athlete’s life?
Trial and error! Honestly, though, I have learned over the years to focus on one area at a time, to concentrate on the task at hand. I had very understanding mentors and preceptors, and it took some planning and prioritizing. There’s a difference in the mindset between making choices and making sacrifices – I always tried to remember that it was a conscious choice I was making to balance academics and athletics, so I never felt like I was missing out.

When do you normally get up and go to bed?
Right now I get up at 4:40 in the morning. At this point I would naturally wake up around six or seven so I wouldn’t say it’s easy! I try to get about seven hours sleep but it’s not always feasible. I can definitely tell that I am more productive with at least seven hours of sleep, though.

How did you take up rowing?
I was lucky because the timing was right. I was not an athlete at all but had always wanted to try sports, and in grade 9 we had an Olympic rower by the name of Don Dickison return to Fredericton and start a learn-to-row program. All of my friends signed up, and I eventually did as well. It wasn’t too long before I was hooked.

What’s it like to compete in major sport events? What’s your best memory?
The Olympic Games are flashy, but the rowing regatta itself is actually smaller than the world championships, with fewer events and boats. International events are always exciting because there is an atmosphere of excellence that permeates the venue  –  it inspires one to really strive for that top spot on the podium.

My best memory was an actual season instead of one particular moment. It was the year I was paired up with teammate Darcy Marquardt. We raced in the women’s pair and won every event we entered that year, culminating in world championship gold. Beyond the medals, though, it was the atmosphere of the common vision and the camaraderie we shared with our team and our coach that made it such a memorable year.

You hold a PhD and MSc in sports medicine, and a BSc in kinesiology from UWO. What prompted you to pursue a medical degree from the University of Toronto?
I have always tried to find the best fit for a university based on academics as well as athletics. The national women’s rowing team trains in London, Ontario, and is well connected with the university, which prompted my initial interest in attending Western.

When I was considering medical school, I knew that would be my main focus. It was the University of Toronto’s excellent reputation in both research and clinical education that drew me in.

How do you feel about the Pan Am Games being hosted by Toronto, with many events taking place at U of T?
I am very proud and excited. I know how well we can pull together as a city, with all our diversity and inclusiveness.

There is a great sporting culture in the GTA, and high performance sport is becoming even more of a priority. I am also very proud to be a U of T alumna now, as I believe the Games will launch our university onto the world stage for sporting events as well.

Have there been occasions yet where you have been able to combine your experience as an athlete with your doctor’s training?
I didn’t realize how many of the lessons I had learned as an athlete would carry over to medicine. I have learned teamwork, self-management, discipline and commitment. These skills transfer over nicely to medicine and, in fact, are crucial on the wards.

Also, it was through sport that I found my passion in health promotion advocacy. I was a total non-athlete who discovered rowing in high school, which completely changed my lifestyle to one much healthier, including more nutritious food, regular exercise and less screen time. However, over the years I have become increasingly aware that my own access to health and health care, and the ability to choose my own healthy lifestyle, is the exception and not the rule. I firmly believe in the notion of “exercise as medicine” and preventive health care, but I also see it as a luxury to most – many around us want to lead healthier, happier lives but don’t have the education or access to make those choices.

Part of this journey was through my time with Right to Play in Uganda, seeing the difference in the quality of children’s lives just by allowing them the simple ability to play. I then saw the opportunity to make a small but tangible difference here at home, by simply collecting donated walking and running shoes for the patient population experiencing homelessness at St. Michael’s Hospital.

I am convinced that every bit helps.

What do you look most forward to in your future career in medicine?
The ability to make a difference in individual lives through patient care and education is a privilege I look forward to. I am also excited to do more clinical research in the area, as well as teaching and training on the topics above. I am beginning to get involved in curriculum development, and I love that kind of work.

If I could be known for anything, it would be to empower both patients and physicians to be able to incorporate physical activity and nutritional strategies to optimize health in their daily lives, regardless of the types of barriers they may face.

Thornton will be doing her medical residency in Switzerland, concentrating on sports medicine and rehabilitation.

What are you doing to support the games? Let us know your plans to volunteer in the coming months, your dreams of competing, coaching, or simply attending the games. Email the editor at U of T News: uoftnews@utoronto.ca.