With rowing, it’s all or nothing
The Enterprise — Jordan J. Michael
Warming up on the Hudson River on Tuesday are varsity rowers — from right, Ashley Cleary, Rebecca Conway, Emily Ashton, and Meghan Gutknecht — of the Albany Rowing Center during practice. The crew, with coxswain Rachel Petrosino in the bow, will be competing in Rancho Cordova, Calif. this weekend for the United States Rowing Youth Nationals Championships, which features more than 1,500 athletes from around the country.
ALBANY — Rowing, or crew as most people call it in the United States, may be the only sport which requires every teammate to be in perfect unison. If the timing of the rowers is off, then not much can go right.
Power and speed from the rowers can certainly make the crew shell travel faster, but that wouldn’t matter much without flawless technique.
“It’s not always easy or fun, so, when you have other people that you’re pushing for, it makes a difference,” said Ashley Cleary, 17, of Guilderland, who is the stroke at the stern for Albany Rowing Center’s varsity 4+ that headed to California this week for the United States Rowing Youth Nationals. The stroke sets the pace for the rowers, which the other oarswomen follow.
The three other rowers are Meghan Gutknecht, 17, of Guilderland; Rebecca Conway, 16, of Bethlehem; and Emily Ashton, 15, of Albany. Rachel Petrosino, 17, of Rotterdam, is the coxswain, who sits at the bow of the crew shell, calling out directions through her headset. The rowers face the stern and so can’t see where the boat is going.
During practice on the Hudson River on Tuesday, Head Coach Mike MacMinn clocked his crew at 1:41 for 500 meters, which he said was “moving along.” The crew shell was named “Lenore Kuwick,” after a former ARC rower, and cost about $22,000.
“In a boat of four people, everyone has to be trying,” said Conway. “Everyone has to be all in to win.”
Since the fall season, the ARC varsity 4+ has won medals in every event, including the bronze medal at the Northeast Championships that got the team to California. These girls have been in the same crew shell since last summer; this is how they spend most of their free time.
“You know that the other girls love what they’re doing as much as you do,” Ashton said. “They know that they’ll push as hard as you during a race. That’s the team aspect.”
For women, crew has exploded in the last 10 to 15 years, MacMinn said. He said that athletic departments are using women’s rowing to balance the roster size of men’s football; tons of Division I scholarships are available.
ARC has had a lot of success with sending girls to Division I colleges, MacMinn said.
“This crew has a really good blend of work ethic, motivation, and talent,” said MacMinn. “Rowing does require an extreme amount of athleticism, but it’s something that you really have to be willing to put a lot of work into, and you’ll get a lot out of it. You can excel pretty quickly if you’re willing to apply yourself.”
The races in California this weekend on Lake Notoma will be 2,000 meters, and MacMinn said that the lake is rated highly for crew because of its notoriously calm and still water. On the other hand, the Hudson River has a current, a tide, and can get relatively windy.
“Racing somewhere new really adds to this experience,” said MacMinn. “There are variables with different water sources.”
Cleary said that the ARC crew has had a lot of close races, and that healthy competition at practice has made the team faster. Also, having the goal of making Nationals provided an extra push.
“The whole race is intense; it’s seven minutes,” Gutknecht said. “There’s some nerves before the race, lining up, but it vanishes when you start to row because you focus on the race.”
Having a five-second lead or more is a wide margin, MacMinn said. During a race, the crew shells are no further than 15 feet apart, side by side.
“The idea is to not look at the other boat, and that’s where Rachel [Petrosino] is really invaluable in terms of strategy and calling it,” Conway said. “Definitely, it hurts, but, again, Rachel is there to keep us calm. The sprint will hurt a lot but you’re also really excited to finish.”
Petrosino said that, if her rowers aren’t getting their bodies out of the bow quick enough, she’ll tell them to be direct with their bodies. “During races, I lean towards power and stuff like that to help them move faster,” she said. “In practice, we break everything down.”
When it comes down to mere seconds for winning a race, that’s when technique is most important, Ashton said. “That’s how you finish the job,” she said. “Power comes into it, but you need that race experience to do well.”
Some people say that rowing is the ultimate team sport; it’s one boat with one direction. The oarswomen must row in perfect unison to win the race.
Basketball, baseball, football, and lacrosse are team sports, too, but individual athletes in those types of competitions aren’t locked in place.
“No one stands out, but I’m not going to not try to stand out because I’d lose,” Cleary said. “Winning as a boat means a lot more than winning individually; there’s so much more technical work, getting everyone together. Everyone has a lot of respect for each other, so the individual aspect disappears in the water.”
Crew teams can succeed as one, and they can also fail as one.
“When everything really clicks and goes right, that’s when crew is unique,” MacMinn said. “When the whole thing is totally in sync, you get that feeling; everyone’s effort is equal. The boat is almost flying over the water.”