When people talk about rowing, typically they reference grace, coordination, strength and teamwork — the pillars of the sport. That’s because, as a spectator sport, rowing has considerable drawbacks. One watches races from riverbanks, which are always just far enough away from the action to diminish to irrelevance the muscle and skill going into each stroke the athletes take. In tennis, you can see the sweat and clenched fists. In track, you’re in awe of the leg muscles flexing. Watch a rowing race and you’re basically enjoying a pleasant riverside picnic.
Yet, many locals find themselves hooked on it. When you get close up, when you live and breathe it, you see the sport’s beauty and, inevitably, begin to relate its principles to all aspects of your life — business, family and personal. You’re whirling into its spell when you start studying each part of the stroke so obsessively that you relate it to stock market returns or how to build a perfect omelet. Call it Zen. Call it poetry. Call it lunacy. Here we look at area athletes who credit a rowing partnership for a deep appreciation of the sport: stroke and coxswain, friends of a “certain age,” romantic partners and parents and children. When that 4:30 a.m. alarm rings, there are very few people who would get out bed and head to a cold, windy, wet workout unless there was someone special waiting for them at the dock.
Todd and Kim – Commander and Chief
The coxswain. There is no one in the sport, in any sport, like the coxswain (the person who doesn’t row in the boat but barks instructions at the rowers). When you find a good one, take a look: usually petite, female, loud, demanding, superconfident and ruthlessly competitive. She will work her boat of rowers to exhaustion to win a race, which she will see as her own. And, at the end, they will adore her.
The stroke. When you find a good stroke (the rower who sits in the lead position), you have someone with exceptional talent, leadership abilities, racing experience and a commanding presence. Strokes set the pace for the boat, and all the rowers sitting behind them had better move in exactly the same way as they do.
The coxswain and the stroke have a unique bond. While the coxswain can sit either facing the stroke or tucked into the boat just behind the bow rower (depending on boat design), it is stroke and coxswain who communicate about critical decisions.
“It’s imperative the stroke and coxswain have a good working relationship,” explains Kim Fisher, a perky, verbal, petite, competitive coxswain for twelve years. She’s now at Saugatuck Rowing Club (SRC), working with stroke Todd Coffin, of Greenwich. “I have been in boats where the stroke and I didn’t get along, and it was just a disaster trying to communicate with the rest of the boat. The stroke is the natural leader in the boat, other than the coxswain. If the stroke doesn’t believe in you, no one will. I can look at Todd and know what he is thinking, whether to call a change in pressure, rating, hand levels.”
Todd comes from a rowing family. Five generations have rowed at St. Paul’s and Yale. He started in prep school, at Pomfret. Tall, handsome, obviously fit and with an impressive rowing pedigree, Todd could get away with a stroke’s typical swagger; instead, he is friendly and often refers to the talents of his crewmates. Although he has sculled, Todd is more comfortable as a sweep rower (who always rows with others) because he enjoys the “team aspect.”
Together, Todd and Kim have been successful. He can claim earning the third-fastest time in the world, and Kim prizes a win at Stotesbury and Nationals and Masters Nationals titles. “We didn’t just win the whole thing,” she says of last year’s Masters Nationals. “We killed the competition.”
These wins don’t come without hard work and training. “Plan to have a high threshold of pain, patience and concentration,” warns Todd, who trains year-round. “Your free time becomes less and less, but the bonds with your teammates strengthen,” Todd says. “I wish Kim success that spills over into her personal life.”
Kim is inspired by working with those who know and fulfill their roles in the boat. “Todd has stepped up as a leader on the men’s team,” she says. “He has shown dedication and discipline.” She also understands how important she is to bringing home the gold: “I think Todd knows how much I enjoy coxing for him and the guys. The guys, and Todd especially, believe in me as a coxswain and my coxing abilities — and how I am effective in motivating them.”
Vincent and Eve – Learning from the Master
Sixty-six-year-old Vince Petrecca of Westport is tall and slim and makes easy eye contact when he speaks. Frankly, he’s charming. One would think that when he started at SRC five years ago, he would have been the new golden boy. Not so, he says: “Every one of my coaches said I would not make it — but I did.”
In hindsight, it does seem that his coaches stacked the deck against him. “After finishing beginner’s class that first fall, we went to Montreal to row in [the World Masters] a mixed eight (four women, four men in an eight-person sweep boat). Little training, no practice. One hour before the race, the coach told me I was stroking the boat. I was scared to death. This was an international event and the boat was introduced as from USA. God, I was scared,” he says. “Of course, we came in last.”
He adds, “It’s a humbling sport, dominated by those who have rowed since college. But anyone can enter a race and line up against the best.”
Over the years, Petrecca has found his way into the veterans’ sculling program and has found a racing soulmate in Eve Green, also of Westport. “She’s the matriarch of the club,” he says, “a legend in her own time and a great friend, woman and competitor.”
Perhaps it’s her smile, maybe her genuine caring for others, but Eve is known for being a friend to everyone in the club. “We are a close-knit group and have a huge support system, not only getting excited by each other’s successes in rowing, but also providing a very caring community.” She is one of the SRC’s founding members, with twelve years rowing experience and dozens of wins, including the prestigious Head of the Charles four times. “I retired from teaching,” she says, “and decided to become a jock.”
Eve is a sculler — an individualist: “I like the instant reward, instant punishment that comes when you row a single. If you do it right, the boat goes smoothly. If not, it doesn’t. If you win a race, it is all your doing.
If you lose, it is all your fault.”
Petrecca had just started sculling, with only a few lessons down, when he met Eve Green. He had never rowed a double (two-person boat) or even left the dock without a coach. He says he did not know Eve and was, in fact, “fearful of the competitive rowers.” Then one day, Eve left him a message: “Vincent, I understand you are going to row [US Rowing Masters Nationals]. My partner cannot go. Would you be interested in rowing the mixed double with me?”
He remembers thinking, “The matriarch of the club is calling me to row with her at the National Championships — God help me!” He says now, “I could do nothing but mess this up. But how could I say no? I waited twenty-four hours and then figured I had no choice, called her and said yes.” During their first practice they hit both a dock and a bridge; but by race day, they had found their rhythm and won by 34/100 of a second — a photo finish.
“Vince was a second-year rower,” says Eve, “strong and comfortable to be with.” She was also told that he was “low maintenance,” but admits she didn’t know what that meant at the time. “We have not only won the Nationals three or four times, but also the Worlds twice.”
Clearly, the partnership is working. “Vince is my only consistent partner and only in the double,” she says. “We have rowed together in many races, usually winning the Nationals and the Worlds in our age group.” Petrecca, now the inspired warrior adds, “Give us our handicap for age and you will lose.”
Mike and Paula – Love Me, Love My Sport
“Rowing parallels life,” says Paula Meyer of Westport. “I drive my kids crazy because I can always use a rowing metaphor to help illustrate a life lesson. Even though they get it, I do have to ask, when they come to me for counsel, ‘Am I allowed to use a rowing metaphor?’ ”
Paula started rowing at the Saugatuck Rowing Club in Westport back in 1995 under Coach Nicoleta Mantescu, a former Romanian National Team coach. “Her attitude was like the Nike slogan: “Just Do It,” says Paula. “The Romanian part was ‘ … Or Else.’ ”
The lad in this love story started rowing at age twelve on the Black Water in County Cork, Ireland. You never know who you’re going to meet and how he/she will change your life, but Paula Meyer says of meeting Michael O’Leary, “It was inevitable.”
Paula and Mike have two obvious things in common: (1) they are internationally ranked scullers; (2) they are extremely competitive. “I like to win,” says Mike. “Masters rowing is so competitive now that if you’re not training, you aren’t going to get very far. There really isn’t an off-season anymore.”
The two met back in 1998, when Paula was prepping for Nationals in Atlanta. Nicoleta suggested she take out a double (two-man boat) with Mike to get some practice at higher, or faster, rates and with someone with more sculling experience. Things clicked. Since that time, the two have competed in singles and mixed-doubles events, winning national medals and a silver medal at the World Masters Championships. They have also become founding members of GMS, a new rowing club in New Milford.
“He balances me,” says Paula, with a reserved, pretty smile that disguises her analytical prowess. “Mike has been rowing since he was twelve and is more visceral and instinctive in his approach to rowing. If he is feeling good on a certain day, he will just keep rowing for hours or rowing hard if it feels good, disregarding what the program calls for. I am more disciplined … I like to be coached. I like the science and mental aspects of the sport.
“I take life very seriously and think things should be done in a certain way. That kind of thinking can be very constructive, but it can also be burdensome. Through him, I’ve learned to wing it. He works hard and is not afraid to put himself on the line and see what he’s got.”
Mike replies, “She is somebody I can depend on,” and adds, “I admire her capacity to take punishment.” He has the Irish habit of speaking quickly, with a near constant smile and slight get-away-with-it cheekiness. “No, seriously, her sheer determination in the boat. When we race together, I sit in the bow (behind her) and give commands based on where we are in the race, and she can give anything I ask for. I make the plays and she is able to answer every call as we go throughthe race.”
Both credit rowing with life-changing lessons. Paula has started her own business, Paula Meyer Nutrition. “I am sure I would not have taken this direction if it weren’t for my interest in and love of the sport,” she says.
Mike says he finds renewed determination in his partner: “Paula’s standards are so high, that has brought me to a whole new level … I also watch what I eat and drink, because of her sports nutrition background, and I think she works that bit harder too because she has me as a partner — neither wants to let the other down.”
She has a special wish for him: “When one rows, everything in the boat is backwards, so may the wind never be at his back as the finish line rises up to meet him.”
The Traynors- It’s a Family Thing
Fairfielders John and Katie Traynor met at Villanova, where they were both captains of their crew teams. Their daughter Kate (heading to Villanova this fall) started rowing at thirteen and their son Owen picked it up at twelve. Griffin, their third child, was an avid baseball and basketball player before he tried rowing with his dad on weekends. By the summer of 2006, Griffin and Owen became the youngest rowers in the boys’ double race at the Club Championships in Indianapolis.
Nature or nurture? Both parents are fully aware that rowing is a sport that must be loved, because of the demands. “We didn’t want the children to feel pressured to row,” says John. Yet rowing is part of the family fabric for the Traynors.
Kate and her father have even raced together in a double, in the men’s category when the race doesn’t offer a mixed-double category. They took third at the Nutmeg State Games this way and also entered the NK Challenge in 2004 as such. “It is an eighteen-mile race on the Schuylkill River. Think of it as the marathon of the rowing world,” says Katie. “John had no intention of subjecting himself to such a punishing race. Then Kate said she would like to give it a try and asked him to row a double with her. How can a father refuse an invitation like that? I said it would either be an amazing bonding experience or they would never speak to each other again.” They finished first.
She adds, “Rowing has been a wonderful way for us to stay connected to our kids. It gets harder to have common interests when they become teenagers. We have a great excuse to spend time with them and be supportive.”
And perhaps learn a lesson or two. “Owen has been steadily improving his erg score,” says his mom. “We knew it was just a matter of time before he caught up to his dad, but we didn’t think it would happen in his sophomore year.” Since all erg scores are posted in the boathouse, John’s teammates were congratulating him on his son’s good work and kidding him about being beaten by his son — this despite John’s being a good three inches taller than almost anyone else in club. And while John’s eyes and voice may be calm before and after a competition, his rowing résumé reveals a fire within.
Owen appreciates the victory. “Finishing a 2K (2,000-meter erg piece) under 6:45 is my greatest achievement so far,” he says. “A 2K is the hardest test I have to do, so after the first time I was sub 6:45, I had the greatest feeling. I’m a pretty relaxed person, so I row for fun, but if the need arises, I will race hard and fast.” Like father, like son. All of this can be intense. Griffin once told his mom, “I am afraid if I pick up an oar, I might never be able to put it down.”
“We realized there was a lot of pressure on him to be like his siblings,” says Katie. “Rowing may never become his year-round passion, but he has gained a life sport that he can share with his family.”