The Power of Well-being: How this Coach’s Philosophy Creates Greatness

  • September 19, 2023

CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench article series – September 2023

We are honored that our athletes felt comfortable coming to us with concerns regarding their mental health and then we try to connect them to available resources.

By David Grossman

Those early morning arduous practices, rowing on calm water, can sometimes create illusions, lead to many moments of grinding physical exercise, a plethora of great expectations and oodles of enjoyment.

Myma Okuda-Rayfuse has lived that life as an athlete, now a coach and is an embodiment for others. As a role model, it also goes beyond sports – it’s helping people, in her career of occupational therapy, regain their independence.

Various items become quite evident in a conversation with this bright and intellectual young woman. Clearly standing out, is her determination, willingness, and ability to comfort and guide people, and not on any one given day, but over a long period of time.

The traits of inspiration and encouragement may very well have come about in her teen years. That’s when she was eager to compete and take the rookie challenge in a variety of sports. She took learn-to-row programs at the Ottawa Rowing Club and the Kennebecasis Rowing Club in Rothesay, N.B.. There was also playing saxophone in the high school band and joining the choir at Glebe Secondary in Ottawa, where she was born, that showed her desire to learn.

But it was much more than becoming part of a group focussed on achieving success.

Hearing her elaborate about those early years in life, which included a brief stint with the high school rowing team.  But that didn’t last. By her own admission, being one who liked to stay up late, night owl was the term she used, didn’t mix well with the concept of early to rise for rowing practices. Her parents also, didn’t think it was a good idea.

Yet, times have changed.

Eagerness and a lust for the sport of rowing re-surfaced in her first year of studying nursing at McMaster University in Hamilton. It was a break from assignments and studies, even though she had graduated from high school with academic honors. Others would get a glimpse of Okuda-Rayfuse being one of those gifted individuals – and it would become more evident in the years to come.

“I had something to prove, maybe there was a touch of jealousy, too,” she said, when asked about her novice season in rowing at McMaster. “I was put in the B boat but convinced that I was good enough to make the A boat. I was upset, but determined to show that I was better than some (had) thought.”

She was bang on. A minor personal setback became a major comeback. It wasn’t greed, but a hunger to excel – and mixed with the passion and devotion to reach for the top. Okuda-Rayfuse would take advantage of opportunities – and do well. She would go on to make the McMaster varsity team, and joined the Ottawa Rowing Club, during the summer months, to stay up with her physical exercise, row recreationally and strengthen her love for the sport.

The spotlight became very clear in 2017.

“My first big achievement came after finishing first in a competition of 36 boats at a Henley event that year,” she recalled. “It was my third year (at McMaster), and it was in the under-23 lightweight women’s singles (event). That was huge.”

Okuda-Rayfuse wasn’t done. That same year, at the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) rowing finals, and again competing on the world renown Royal Canadian Henley course, she caught more attention. This time, she finished second in a race won by Jill Moffatt, who is now a member of Canada’s Olympic team.

However, she was on Canada’s team that competed at the Fédération Internationale du Sport Universitaire (FISU) World University championships in Shanghai, China. Joining her was Alanna Fogarty in the lightweight women’s doubles competition. They finished ninth.

Okuda-Rayfuse never did make it to the Olympics or World championships. For her, there would be a bigger stage to shine – and it was not in the sports world.

Also in 2017, she accepted an offer to coach the Learn to Row program at the Leander Boat Club – a community club with an assortment of programs and located on the south shore of Hamilton Harbour. Enthusiastic about rowing and the club, she would also be appointed to the club’s Board of Directors.

“It was a great opportunity for me, I enjoyed it and strengthen my ability to learn more about the club, the sport, the athletes and share my experience,” she said, while also acknowledging that she found time to help with the coaching the rowing team at Hamilton’s St. Mary Catholic Secondary School.

Then, a bit of a shocker after receiving her degree at convocation. She would spend the summer working at a grocery store because the 12-hour nursing shifts would have interfered with rowing practice. Her focus was on trying to make the Canadian roster for the World University Games and then see “where life would take me”.

Again, Okuda-Rayfuse knew there was some additional unfinished business. That resulted in her adding to the academic resume by completing her Masters in occupational therapy.

These days, she is on the staff of the Hamilton General Hospital and works at the location that is home for several key regional referral programs offered by Hamilton Health Sciences.

“My values had changed and there was more interest in quality of life,” she said. “I had worked part time as a nurse, worked in a rehabilitation unit and graduated in November of 2021, I was focussed on my future and enjoy helping people regain independence. I see my job as being very person focussed.”

Busy and focussed, Okuda-Rayfuse is also a co-coach of the rowing program at McMaster and when asked about her proudest moment outside of being an athlete, she highlighted the coaching effort in McMaster winning a gold medal at the 2022 OUA championships. It was the first gold by a women’s team in the past 20 years.

In addition to coaching at McMaster, Okuda-Rayuse is responsible for the senior competitive program at Leander. That involves a group of 30+ athletes from nine different universities across North America. She, primarily, coaches the under-23 and senior women. In July of 2023, each athlete in her program won, at least, one medal at the provincial championship. 

In recognition of her overall coaching experience and community support, Okuda-Rayfuse was chosen as the 2023 recipient of a special award presented by Hydro One, in partnership with the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO) at the recent Ontario Coaching Excellence Awards. It’s called the Hydro One Safe Play award given to an individual who is committed to practicing positive, inclusive and safe sport through their leadership role.

The CAO “supports coaches by ensuring that all sport participants are physically, emotionally, and mentally safe, with accessible and affordable tools and resources”. The Safe Sport 101 partnership between the CAO and Hydro One gives coaches the tools they need to make sports safe, fun, and inclusive for all.

“I look at the legacy of coaches and for me it has only been a couple of years,” said Okuda-Rayfuse. “As a coach, I always promote fun and the community. Rowing is a tough sport and there are lots of athletes who quit because times can be very challenging.

“Mental health has always been a problem in sport, especially amongst student athletes. We are honored that our athletes felt comfortable coming to us with concerns regarding their mental health and then we try to connect them to available resources.

“I was overwhelmed to receive this award and it validates the work I am doing. I coach with others, and we know we are making a big impact in peoples’ lives – also in my life.”


David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.

I was overwhelmed to receive this award and it validates the work I am doing. I coach with others, and we know we are making a big impact in peoples’ lives – also in my life.