Elli Rowley grew up playing soccer, but her dad rowed for a master’s crew at the Olympia Area Rowing club based at Swantown Marina.
When she got to eighth grade, her sporting arc intersected her dad’s when OAR began a program for middle schoolers. Rowley joined. Soccer soon became a thing of the past.
“I made a lot of really good friends the first year,” Rowley said. “I had a lot of fun being outside and being on the water. It was different from any other sports. I felt more connected to rowing. It’s a lifelong sport, it can take me through the rest of my life.”
Four years later, the Capital High School senior is bound for the USRowing Youth National Championships in Sarasota, Fla., where she and OAR teammate Natalie Bailey, a senior at Olympia HIgh School, will vie for the Women’s Youth 2X title, beginning Thursday.
In the fall, Rowley will row for 2022 NCAA runner-up Stanford University while Bailey is headed for the University of Virginia. They won the Northwest Regionals two weeks ago. A year ago, the pair finished third in their heat at the trials for the American U19 team on the Sarasota course.
“We’ve been in the same setting. We’re excited to race,” Rowley said. “We’re pretty ambitious, we want to make the ‘A’ final.”
Fifth-year OAR girls coach Kathryn Reith, a pioneering women’s rower in the early days of Brown University’s program during the mid-1970s, noticed a new focus when Rowley and Bailey returned from trials.
“They came back really wanting to go to nationals. They’ve been training really, really hard,” Reith said.
They aren’t the only two OAR athletes with high level experience or futures as collegiate rowers. OAR’s entire Men’s 4X regional-winning crew of Capital senior Windsor Pratt and three Olympia seniors, Ben Burtner, Cale Matheson and stroke Cole Jucksch, will become part of Oregon State’s program in the fall. All four competed at nationals a year ago, but only Matheson was part of OAR’s quad crew. Juksch was in the single sculling event while Burtner and Pratt teamed up in doubles.
“They’re very experienced. They’ve all been rowing since middle school and went to nationals last year,” said OAR boys coach Richard Laurence. “When we left there last year, all six of the guys who went said ‘went want to come back’ and all of them are coming back. They were here five days a week during the summer. They’re big bike guys and go on rides together.”
Most will have to adjust to eight-person crews with coxswain that is the main focus of collegiate programs. With none of the crews OAR is sending to nationals requiring a coxswain, Olympia senior Kayla Quesnel won’t be in Florida, but she will be on the team at Washington State next year.
OAR’s ability to put nationally-competitive teams on the water is remarkable given the club recruits from a variety of local high schools. Most kids who show up have little if any experience.
“We recruit anybody who wants to row,” Reith said. “We do outreach, but the best ambassadors are our kids who talk to other kids.”
Once they come together, athletes don’t seem to miss the “school spirit” that goes along with playing for a single high school.
“Once they’re here it’s no big deal,” Reith said. “You get to know people, you become teammates. We have a strong team culture. We want everyone to come and have a good time.”
Building beginners into legitimate competitors can be an organic process at OAR, which as recently as 2019 produced a second-place finish in the women’s double sculls by Emily Jaudon, who rowed for Brown in the NCAA finals last week, and Cate Burtner, both from Olympia.
“A lot of the times it’s the kids themselves,” said Reith. “They’ve seen other kids in the past go and they’ll ask them ‘what does that take?’ Did you do extra training beyond what OAR is doing? Did you talk to the coaches and get extra workouts? We’ve also had kids get invited to Olympic development camps. Their eyes are opened to what the possibilities are.”
Interestingly, though OAR does have five different high schools represented among the 16 rowers going to nationals, boys coach Richard Laurence says its not difficult to find the teammates who be the most successful together.
“Some of my coaching colleagues and I feel when it comes to small boats like a quad, as compared to the eights, a team is born, not made,” he said. “You can tell in half a practice if they’re going to go fast.
“You’re looking for people who are going to move together for seven minutes. In rowing it’s all about ‘we’ and not ‘me’ so you have to find four guys who are into making it go as a group and not as individuals.”
One challenge OAR faces in competing 3,180 miles from home this week is whether to use its own shells for nationals or rent. Oars, like some track athletes’ vaulting poles, can be airplane baggage. Not boats, which matters if rowers end up seated in an unfamiliar model.
OAR’s girls were able to locate newer versions of the boats they use in the Northwest for rent in Florida. They did not ship. The boys loaded their shells onto a trailer shared with other Oregon and Washington teams and will use their own.
In addition to Bailey and Rowley and the Men’s quad boat, other OAR competitors headed for Sarasota include:
Women’s Youth 4x: Brooklyn Adranga, Sr., Olympia; Ruby Bosco, Black Hills; Ella Dirkx, Olympia; Grace Maynard, Charles Wright Academy. Men’s Youth 2x: Quinn Baker, Jr., Olympia; Ryan McCabe, Jr., Olympia. Men’s U17 4x: Max Glatthaar, So., Olympia; Rowan Greenaway, Fr., Olympia; Colin Roark, So., Tumwater; Evan Sandberg, Fr., Capital.