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The Royal St. John's Regatta at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's, N.L., on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. Women and men will row the same course lengths at the Royal St. John's Regatta this summer for the first time in the race's 203-year history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul DalyPaul Daly/The Canadian Press

Pending a trial run in June, men and women will row the same distances at the Royal St. John’s Regatta in August for the first time in the race’s 203-year history, officials announced Monday.

The news comes after years of women rowers speaking out about the race’s traditional gender-based course lengths.

“We’ve been working for this for a long time,” rower Nancy Beaton said in an interview shortly after the announcement. “People have been fighting for it for a couple of generations.”

The Royal St. John’s Regatta bills itself as the oldest organized sporting event in North America. The annual day of races takes place on Quidi Vidi Lake, a 1,600-metre long body of water in the city that flows through a historic former fishing village and empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

Traditionally, the men rowed a 2.45-kilometre course, racing to the end of the narrow lake and back. Women, meanwhile, rowed half the distance, turning around in the centre of the lake and barrelling back to the start line.

But this year, the 204th regatta and 2022 rowing season will have a men’s short course and a women’s long course for the first time, officials said in a news release. Rowing season begins May 2.

The move follows the election in January of the race committee’s first female president and female vice-president team.

“We know that this is a great step toward the progression of our sport,” Ashley Peach, the regatta’s vice president and course captain, said in the release. A trial run with the new race distances is set for June 25, officials said.

In 2018, Beaton rowed with the team that set the current women’s record at the regatta. She said her new team has been training for the long course all winter, with the intention of rowing it this year no matter what the rules are.

“We hadn’t decided if we were going to, I don’t know, grab a boat in the men’s race or do the women’s race,” she said laughing.

Beaton was part of a working group of four people who put together a plan and presentation for the regatta committee about adding the longer-distance race for the women’s teams.

In the past, it was hard to get the mostly male committee to take seriously the idea of dropping the gender-based course lengths, she added, noting that up until a several years ago, the short course was called the “ladies’” course.

“It’s sexism, it’s treating people differently by their gender,” she said.

Beaton said she’s not expecting many women’s teams to sign up for the long course this year because there hasn’t been enough notice for them to train properly. But the men will certainly have enough time to train for the short course, she said.

The shorter distance may even encourage more men to take part, she added.

The Royal St. John’s Regatta runs on the first Wednesday of August each year, as long as the weather permits. Race day is a civic holiday in St. John’s, offering a weather-dependent day off for most residents.

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