Eight local high school athletes are rowing their way to a national championship in Sarasota, Florida this week.
The Olympia Area Rowing team will send three crews and their coaches to the USRowing Youth National Championships, the premier youth rowing event in the country, which hosts more than 1,000 young athletes all competing for national titles in 18 boat classes.
The OAR team qualified for three national events at the USRowing Northwest Youth Championships in Vancouver two weekends ago. Students competed against crews from Alaska, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.
Emily Jaudon, an Olympia High School junior, and Cate Burtner, an Olympia High sophomore, qualified for the Women’s 2x event, winning first place and beating the second-place team by 10 seconds. This is the first time Olympia Area Rowing has won this event at the Northwest competition. They are coached by Lenny O’Donnell.
Sean Swett, a Capital High School senior, Sam Fleckenstein, an Olympia senior, Steven Collet, an Olympia junior, and Winston Wilhere, an Olympia junior, also took first place in their event, the Men’s 4x.
Evan Gonick, an Olympia junior, and Evan Thornton, an Olympia sophomore, qualified for the Men’s 2x event through petition, coming in 1.3 seconds behind third place. Both men’s crews are coached by Kiirsten Flynn.
According to OAR Head Coach Richard Hull, the program has sent crews to the national championship for the past two years. Last year’s two boats took 12th in their events, while the year prior saw the program place the best they ever have: third in the nation in the men’s 2x event.
“My goal for them is to measure themselves against the best in the country and to really learn from the experience,” Hull said.
For the student competitors, qualifying for nationals is proof of the hard work and dedication they have committed to their sport.
“It had been our goal to win that regionals trophy for most of the year, so it’s satisfying to know that our work has paid off and given us the result we were hoping for,” Jaudon said.
For many of the rowers, this is their first time rowing at the national event and they are facing a combination of excitement and anxiety as they prepare for the races.
“It’s always quite daunting to compete against the best crews in the nation, but for me, it’s more about the experience of competing with good friends rather than the place you get,” Gonick said.
The athletes have been doing some extra work to prepare for the tough competition: during practice, they have been wearing long sleeves and pants to simulate the 30-degree temperature increase they will face in Florida.
“We’re trying to become as acclimated as we can to those kind of conditions,” Jaudon said. “We’ve also been practicing at 5 a.m. to try and get used to the three-hour time difference.”
“We know the weather will be hot and humid so we are a little concerned about that, but we are arriving several days early to practice on the course and get used to the heat,” said Swett, one of the team captains.
Races begin Thursday, June 6, and run through the weekend. The athletes are raising money to pay for their travel through a GoFundMe account.
As for specific goals: Collet, who will be competing in his first nationals, is hoping his boat will finish in the A group final for the Men’s 4x race.
“I think we will do well,” Collet said. “I have been rowing with two of these guys for three years, so it feels pretty cool to go to nationals with them.”