Orlando Area Rowing Society is sending five boats to the USRowing National Championships in West Windsor, New Jersey, this weekend.
WINDERMERE The throng of high-school students hitting Lake Down with their rowboats after school these days has decreased from estimates approaching 150 to about 45.
This is not because of reduced interest – rowing continues to thrive and grow in West Orange County – but because Orlando Area Rowing Society (OARS) has again extended its season into June for the USRowing National Championships. Those 45 students represent five boats bound for the June 10 to 12 regatta in West Windsor, New Jersey: women's and men's varsity 8+, women's and men's lightweight 8+ and women's varsity 4+.
“My novice year, when I joined, there were probably 40 girls on the team,” said Olympia student Maddie Sabis, who joined OARS in fourth grade and is in the woman's lightweight 8+ boat. “Now, my junior year, we're almost at 100, so the more competition, the more people are pushing themselves to be in the top boats and working even harder. And now states isn't even our goal – now our goal is to get as many boats to nationals as possible, which wouldn't be possible if we hadn't been recruiting years ago.”
Hard work at practice for months was the other major factor for the team's success this season, Sabis said. For example, she said boats from Sarasota had been defeating them all season, but sticking to the practice plan culminated in a sudden victory May 14 and 15 at the USRowing Southeast Youth Championships in Sarasota.
“I remember fall season, when we're doing all those long (rows) just to build our cardio,” she said. “I'm like, 'Why am I doing this? This is really rough.' But then it all pays off when you get to sprint season and you're beating all those other teams and you can call yourself a national-level athlete. It's awesome.”
The OARS men's lightweight 8+ boat conversely earned a bronze medal at regionals, the men's and women's varsity 8+ boats each placed second, and the women's varsity 4+ boat finished third. All four also qualified for nationals; only five teams qualified more than OARS' five boats of at least four rowers.
“For races, you train for months at a time, six days a week, three hours a day,” said men's varsity 8+ captain Nicholas Hall, a West Orange High senior who will row at Stetson after three years with OARS. “All that work comes down to a race that's just over six minutes long.”
This makes rowing a difficult sport to sell to spectators, because it consists of the same mechanics for just a few minutes, he said. Because synchronization is crucial but makes rowing look easy, even parents can fall short in appreciating the exertion of it, which Sabis said can leave her feeling faint.
“You have to make every second of the stroke as together as possible, so when it looks like we're barely even trying,” she said. “But I know when we finish a race everybody feels (tired).”
Windermere Prep freshman Jason Kwatra said faster rowing usually looks easier, citing his view of 2012 Olympic rowing before he started last year.
But his perspective has changed dramatically since then, and he has grown to appreciate nuances such as seeing rival boats behind when his is in the lead, unlike having little idea of foes' whereabouts while leading in track.
“It's kind of like one of those things you agree to do with a friend, maybe as a joke at first,” Kwatra said. “It's a lot harder and more time-consuming than it seems, but it becomes a lot more enjoyable than a lot of other sports I've played – football, basketball, baseball, tennis, swimming. … It's the most mental, and it's pretty competitive.”
Hall agreed, noting how instead of having distinct roles, every member of any boat must constantly give a full effort and match his teammates. Despite the 10 different high schools – plus home schools – the 45 national qualifiers attend, they feel they can trust their teammates inside and outside the boat, cherishing friendships from all over the area.
“I do like all the friends I've made,” Sabis said, “because I have friends that go to West Orange and Dr. Phillips – and I go to Olympia – so it's cool to know people who go to different schools when at our schools we'd be rivals.”
Another aspect of rowing that sets it apart is, of course, the setting. Hall said the ability to travel all over Florida and even to rivers in Tennessee for competition leads to seeing all sorts of natural vistas, as opposed to a virtually identical field or court.
“Some of my favorite time is when we go to a big race or even just at practice and you're pushing yourself really hard, and then you just take a break,” Sabis said. “Especially during winter training, you take a deep breath, look around and the sun will be setting, and you'll be like, 'Wow.' Not many people get to see this every day, so it's really cool.”
But no setting compares to nationals, where the final stretch is a tunnel of pure screaming, Kwatra said. When he, Hall and Sabis rowed there last year, the senses blurred, Sabis said.
“Last year, it was in Sarasota, so it was really close to home, and we were used to the weather and it made training feel more at home,” she said. “But nationals, you get there and have to take a deep breath: 'Wow, I just beat all these hundreds of other teams in the country and made it here.' You have to be really committed to the training and really want it.”
And the three could not stress enough how having more team members has exponentiated their progress.
“Recruiting is definitely a big thing,” Hall said. “The bigger the team means there's more talent coming in and everyone wants to be better. That pushes other people to say, 'Hey, I want to try to beat that guy.' It's just a cycle of everyone continuously getting better, which then helps the whole team be better.”
And although Sabis said rowing is more common in Central Florida than most would think, she and Hall want OARS to get even bigger, especially if the schools can sponsor and promote it better. That could lead to making the podium at nationals instead of merely qualifying.
For more information, visit OARSrowing.com.