Crew Captures Rowers' Hearts

 

Twelve-month commitment for a six-minute race

By Ernie Clark
Photography by Fred Field
 

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Before her arrival on Mayflower Hill, Laura Mis-tretta '04 never envisioned rowing as part of her life. Now, after four years and a national NCAA championship, she can't imagine life without rowing.

"There's nothing like being in a boat and racing," said Mistretta. "It's all the hours and all the training and all the work, and it's a sport that demands so much mental dedication. It's a big part of who I am now and who I will always be."

That commitment can be traced in part to her role in Colby's recent rowing success, including the Mules' 2003 NCAA Division III Women's Rowing Championship after placing second in 2002.

"It's so physical compared to other sports," said Mistretta, a government major from New York City. "You really put yourself out there, but there's nothing better than flying down the course and knowing you're going to win."

Viewed from the shoreline, a racing shell slicing the water is a fluid image of grace, unity and even serenity. Inside the boat, though, there's an adrenaline-soaked edge as eight individual athletes work aggressively as one organism, straining to propel a 60-foot boat as fast as possible along a 2,000-meter course.

"You can hear the other people breathing, the oars snapping in the oarlocks," said Katie O'Neill '04, who was co-captain of the 2004 team with Mistretta. "You can feel the lifting of the boat out of the water and you can hear the water bubbling underneath. It's just an unbelievable feeling."

For the eight seniors who graduated from the 2004 crew, rowing hasn't served merely as a distraction from the demands of academics; it's been an addiction and a mission. While races are held in the spring, the commitment to rowing begins with an ongoing devotion to weight training, cross training and work on indoor rowing ergometers that simulate race conditions. A rower's life is thinking, breathing and talking the sport.

"It's something we focus on year-round," said O'Neill, a history major from Harwich, Mass., "but it's such a great feeling doing all the work twelve months a year for those six minutes we race."

That Colby has a national-caliber women's rowing team despite the geographic and meteorological challenges inherent in its Maine base is a tribute to the intensity of those who have nurtured and participated in the growth of the program.

"It became clear that the sport and the school were really good for each other," said Stew Stokes, the Mules' fourth-year head coach. "You can't come to Colby and not know what you're getting into in terms of the weather and the outdoors. But we see it as a strength, not a weakness, for the school and for the rowing program, because it's a sport that's conducive to people who like the outdoors."

It's also conducive to athletes seeking a new challenge. Like many collegiate rowers, neither Mistretta nor O'Neill had experience on the water before joining Colby's crew.

"In my senior year of high school, I saw the Harvard and [Boston University] teams rowing in the Head of the Charles," said O'Neill. "I fell in love with it, and once I got to Colby I knew it was something I wanted to do."

As first-year students, in 2001, Mistretta and O'Neill were part of a Colby freshman crew that won the ECAC championship in a boat they call "Rosie the Riveter." "It's a boat that's special to our class, sort of our unofficial team mascot," O'Neill said.

As sophomores, seven of this year's eight seniors rode in Rosie, helping Colby place second at the NCAA championships.

In 2004 the Colby crew earned the College its first NCAA team championship, braving 32 m.p.h. winds to win the Division III final in Indianapolis.

"As sophomores we finished second and kind of came out of nowhere," Mistretta said. "Both years we went into it with no expectations, except when Stew sat us down before the race and told us we could win. That's when it really clicked in."

Nearly half of the championship crew,including All-American Leah Hagamen '05,was back this spring, but injuries, weather, expectations and stiff competition all served to deny the Mules a third straight trip to the NCAAs. "The end of the season didn't go like we hoped," Mistretta said. "We obviously wanted to go to the NCAA championships again. But, when I think about it, we rowed as well as we could. I take a lot of comfort in that."