Past Lives: Kristin Jeffery, from lawyer to founder of rowing studio, SCULLHOUSE


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‘Past Lives’ is an ongoing column about the past careers of entrepreneurs and business leaders. The column recounts each person’s experience in various industries, from finance to sales, or simply, the nine-to-five grind. More than anything, ‘Past Lives’ is a story about how one person has reached their potential, and cut themselves loose from what was expected.

SCULLHOUSE Rowing is one of the first group of rowing studios in Canada dedicated to high-intensity training. Here, Jeffery talks to us about dedication, sacrifices, and the injuries along the way.

I fell in love with rowing at Western University where I began rowing with the novice team in my final year of undergrad. Given my late introduction to the sport, I was sad to know I’d have to leave it the following year to begin law school at Osgoode Hall in Toronto.

When my rowing coach told me he thought I had a shot at competing in the I-Lan International Collegiate Invitational Regatta in Taiwan, I knew I had to try out.

Apart from making the boat, the only catch was that the regatta was happening during the second week of September, which meant I’d miss the first two weeks of law school. I made the boat, and decided I could catch up on law school once I got home.

Going to that regatta changed my life—I returned to Toronto absolutely hooked on competitive rowing. I ended up transferring from Osgoode Hall to Western’s law school, so I could keep training with the rowing team in London. Balancing law school and rowing was difficult, but it all paid off when during my third and final year of law school, I was invited out to Victoria to train with the Canadian lightweight women’s national team.

I’d been training in Victoria for about six months when one day, my forearms began to seize. It was so bad I couldn’t hold the oar. Desperate to find a solution, I tried everything from acupuncture to hot-and-cold therapy to massage, but nothing worked. I was devastated. There was a possibility that this could be the end of my rowing career.

Eventually I saw a surgeon, who said it sounded like exercise-induced compartment syndrome. He said that I could try forearm surgery, but there was no guarantee it would work. Less than 24 hours after speaking with the surgeon, I was on the operating table.

Feeling frustrated, I moved back to London, Ontario in the fall of 2008 to begin a post-graduate degree in a Masters of Law at Western (LLM). By a stroke of luck, the lightweight women’s national training centre relocated to London. When the coach asked me to row with them, I couldn’t say no. I ended up training with the team and competing at the World Championships in 2009, while I finished my LLM.

Although my dream was to make it to the Olympics in 2012, I kept getting injured. Ultimately I decided to leave competitive rowing to pursue law. Walking away from that unfulfilled dream was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life.

Going from an extremely active lifestyle to the daily grind of office work was completely shocking, both mentally and physically. The first month of sitting at an office desk for over 12 hours a day caused my sciatic nerve to flare up, which caused a lot of pain.

I started doing Pilates, yoga, and eventually made my way back onto the indoor rowing machine. Carving out time to workout every day was the best treatment for my back and it kept me feeling good, healthy, and happy while I worked long days and nights in my new career as a Bay Street lawyer.

Starting my own business happened in a roundabout way. I was thinking about ways to bring rowing back into my life. In October 2015, a friend told me about all the rowing gyms popping up in the U.S., and how cool they were, so I started doing some research. That was when the light went off and I thought, I could actually do this.

I went to New York to check out some of the rowing studios—I wanted to see what other people were offering, and if a rowing gym was a concept people really enjoyed. The classes I attended were great. People seemed to love it, and with my rowing background, I felt like I could take the idea to the next level in Toronto.

I left my law firm to start my very own rowing gym. In March 2017, SCULLHOUSE opened its doors.

Following your dream can be harder than you expect, but rowing always felt right. When I encountered hurdles getting SCULLHOUSE off the ground, it was my love and passion for the sport that helped me push through.

Starting a brand new business is always challenging – whether it’s issues with construction, or delays in permit approvals, it can sometimes feel as though you are taking two steps backward for every step forward. Our original target opening date was September 2016. It wasn’t until late March 2017 that we finally opened.

Opening SCULLHOUSE has been challenging in ways I never expected. While there have been setbacks, the “work” feels different now that I’m doing something I love. At SCULLHOUSE, I’ve created a community and a vibe that I truly believe in. It’s about being healthy, challenging your limits, and believing in yourself. I am constantly aware of how lucky I am to be working on a business I love.