by Kathyrn Phelan
Michigan was snowy and 30 degrees when the Grand Valley rowing team drove 24 hours to Florida, where the weather was sunny and 30 degrees. Undaunted, the rowers unburied the long spandex from the bottom of their suitcases and steeled themselves for three practices a day in the cheerful albeit freezing Florida air.
Time on the water was largely spent tweaking and perfecting technique. The coaching staff shifted lineups, varied boat size, and took video of the athletes in order to focus on their technical improvement. Coach Bancheri also delivered “chalk talks” in the mornings, which illustrated the topics to be covered during practice and reinforced knowledge of the rowing stroke as it culminated throughout the week.
Justin Wegner, a novice this year, said, “I feel like I am a technically better rower by learning how to row longer and more relaxed. I got to know Varsity rowers better and it was good to row with experienced athletes.” Varsity rower Jeff Slater agreed that the trip was beneficial in saying, “A lot of progress was made with the younger guys, and I honed in on my own technical skills.”
The team members worked diligently and without complaint, posting erg workouts, dynamic stretching, on-water drills, long practices in sometimes choppy conditions, and in many cases extra erg workouts or runs on their own. Older varsity athletes reviewed videos with their novice teammates, and novice got a chance to bond with their varsity counterparts. The team even started their new year with an erg workout on the morning of January 1st to kick off what promises to be a successful new year. As Tamara Hillman said, “Because the novice and varsity were mixed together, it helped them to see what they have to look forward to at the varsity level.” Becca Struder, another novice who made the trip, added, “I learned a lot. The coaching staff helped me improve my stroke. Getting to know the rest of the varsity team also made a difference.”
The rowers slept in cabins right on the lake, but lacked an oven, stove, or fridge. The campsite conditions mandated creativity and the team rose to the challenge: each night one cabin was responsible for taking a trip to the grocery store and preparing a meal for the sixty rowers and coaches. Using only a grill, aluminum tins and a microwave, the team invented ways to make pizza, tacos, chili dogs, breakfast burritos, pork chops, salads, dirt cake, and puppy chow. Novice and varsity teammates compiled ideas and resources to create a successful dining plan.
Determined to enjoy Florida regardless of the coldest winter the area had endured in sixty years, the team took trips to two beaches, went on a shopping spree, and a few members of the men’s team explored Universal Studios. Instead of swimming at the beach, everyone took advantage of the empty miles of sand to rent and drive mopeds and beach cruisers (essentially little golf carts). The rowers and coaches chased each other around in them, played volleyball, ran along the sand bar, read in coffee shops, and grabbed some ice cream at Coldstone. The Sukolsky family, whose daughter Kristin was a coxswain at Marietta for Coach Bancheri, grilled for everyone at the beach and provided beach toys for an afternoon of fun.
As the team loaded the bus on the last day of the trip, the sun shone and the temperature rose enough to mandate shorts and t-shirts for the first time. Although jokes permeated about the team’s bad timing or bad luck with weather, spirits were high. The rowers spent a week living in cabins with cement floors, using communal bathrooms with cold showers, enduring rough water, frost-covered docks and two twenty-four hour bus rides. But they did not let these factors dictate the experience.
By the spring racing season, they will have forgotten the frigidity of the unseasonably cold weather, but they will remember the chaos and hilarity of trying to get everyone showered before dinner on New Years Eve. They won’t be thinking about where they slept, but they’ll remember how great a nap felt after a good workout. The athletes could have focused on the challenges and inevitable frustrations, but they chose to focus on card games between workouts, cheering each other on during erg pieces, and sitting up a little straighter in the boat. Instead of bereaving the loss of part of their winter break, the rowers reaffirmed their commitment, tightened their technique, grew closer to their teammates, and look forward to a successful racing season in the spring.