row2k Features
Kiss the Joy - More Than a Story of a Woman Pioneer in Rowing
April 8, 2018
Ed Moran,

Just telling the story of the life of Joan Lind Van Blom from the perspective of her impact on the development of women's rowing in the United States could easily fill an hour-long documentary that spans the decades from when Van Blom found rowing to when she died of cancer in August of 2015.

During that time, women like Van Blom had become pioneers who carved through the landscape of a sport once thought to be the exclusive domain of men in the US, and fought to prove they could compete successfully in international competition, particularly against women from the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries.

Van Blom knew nothing about the sport, or the development of women's rowing when, as a freshman at Cal State Long Beach trying to find something of interest outside of her studies, she walked into the school's boat house and was by chance asked by Melinda Collis, one of the few women sculling there, if she wanted to try rowing.

It was the beginning of a life-long love of the sport and the kindling of a competitive spirit within Blom that would drive her to be not just the best in the United States, but the best in the world. Her triumph at home led to her earning a spot on the first US women's team to compete in an Olympics in 1976 in Montreal and to an Olympic Silver medal won in a breathtaking race against East Germany's World Champion, Christine Scheiblich. It was the first of two Olympic silver medals Van Blom won during her career.

The race, and Van Blom's performance in Montreal, has been Olympic rowing lore since the moment it ended. For US women, Van Blom became the beacon of proof of what American women could achieve in rowing.

But the story of Van Blom, is not just the story of breaking barriers, or setting examples. Those were the by-products of the athlete and woman - the person - who Van Blom was.

To weave those two stories together would take a masterful effort, like the one author and documentary filmmaker Jean Strauss has accomplished in the documentary, "Kiss the Joy: The Story of Joan Lind Van Blom.

Set to debut at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 28, Strauss's film begins with the introduction of the history of women's rowing in the United States and where it was at the time Van Blom was a teenage flag girl at her high school in Long Beach, California, growing up just two-miles from Marine Stadium, the site of the 1932 Olympic trials, but completely unaware of the existence of the rowing venue.

Strauss could have easily gotten lost in the narrative of how Van Blom became the two-time Olympic silver medalist and American champion and poster girl for women in rowing, and missed bringing to life Van Blom's personality.

"Many people played important roles in the evolution of women's rowing in the US. But Joan was key," Strauss said. "She worked harder than anyone - and set the bar for not only all of us from that early era but also rowers today. She was one in a million."

But in interviews with Van Blom as she struggled through her final years from when she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer to when she passed away, along with interviews with her former coach, teammates, and elite women athletes, former and present, Strauss's film quietly draws the portrait of a humble and proud athlete who viewed adversity as opportunity and trained and raced with the sole intention of being the best she could be.

It shows both her triumphs and moments of intense disappointment and how she handled both with humble dignity. She could have snubbed then President Jimmy Carter - as many of her Olympic teammates chose to do during a White House reception for the team that was prevented from competing in the 1980 Olympics - but is pictured on the White House lawn smiling and shaking Carter's hand.

"It was important to me that Joan's career be documented - that the athletes of today have an opportunity to know her," said Strauss. "Working with her on the film for those few brief months was a privilege - and she made it so much fun. The title of the film comes from a Blake poem she was fond of - and it captures her attitude Not only about rowing, but life."

Listening to those who talk about Van Blom, the film makes clear that she was both admired for her fierce nature on the water in training and competition and for the love and respect she had for her sport, the athletes in it and her general outlook on life.

Perhaps one of the film's most touching moments was the depiction of an exchange of correspondence between Scheiblich and Van Blom, who had never spoken after the final in Montreal, when the two had quietly traded racing shirts, something Scheiblich was not permitted to do.

Van Blom wrote to Scheiblich a month before she died and thanked her for the jersey she handed her in Montreal, expressed her admiration, and asked Scheiblich if she remembered her.

Scheiblich's response came the morning Van Blom died. But Van Blom never saw the message in which Scheiblich answers that she not only remembers her, but writes that Van Blom was the only competitor she ever feared racing.

Combining interviews with Van Blom and readings from the volumes of training journals Van Blom kept, "Kiss the Joy," brings viewers deep inside the psyche the athlete, while at the same time revealing what made her not just a champion athlete, but a compassionate woman, mother and wife who was admired and loved by everyone that came to know her.

"Kiss the Joy," is a film that transcends the story of an athlete who blazed a trail ahead for those who competed with her and those that came after, and tells the complete story of a person who was special not just for what she accomplished, but for who she was in total. "It was daunting working on her story because I know how much she means to so many people" Strauss said. "Her legacy is glimpsed in the words of the many people interviewed for the film. Gracious. Humble. Game-changer.

"The hardest thing about working to finish the film these past two years was knowing she wouldn't get to see it."


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