Islanders embrace intensity of rowing, fuel local crew teams

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Islander Courtney Backman, far left in red, in the bow seat of the varsity eight during a Mt. Baker crew team practice. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Islander Courtney Backman, far left in red, in the bow seat of the varsity eight during a Mt. Baker crew team practice.
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From the shore, Islander Courtney Backman and her teammate’s strokes look effortless as they propel their boat atop a bumpy Lake Washington on a cloudy Thursday afternoon. Up close, however, the physical effort they put into each pull becomes very apparent.

Rowing on Lake Washington is both intense sport and extreme exercise. It is embraced by many Islanders both young and not so young. Athletes are drawn into the sport in many different and unique ways.

About 80 Islander youths participate in Mt. Baker Crew every day, except Sundays, from September through May. In addition to being a recreational boating center with sailboats and sailboards, Mt. Baker boasts a competitive juniors racing program.

David Bowman, a MIHS senior who races with Mt. Baker from the shore of Lake Washington near Seward Park in Seattle, described the sport of rowing as one often misunderstood. While it looks like he and his teammates, including MIHS sophomores Matt Vincent and Robbie Capelluto, are out on a leisurely row on the lake, it’s really the toughest thing these teens have ever done.

“People think that we just sit out there and row with our arms,” Capelluto said. “They have no idea that we actually put our bodies through hell every day.”

“It’s a different kind of sport,” Bowman agreed. “People just don’t know what we do.”

Before the boys and girls at Mt. Baker even get to put an oar in the water, they warm up with pull-ups, sit-ups and stretching before they segue into their one-and-a-half-hour workout on the rowing machines. The machines, called “ergs,” have a computer to monitor each rower’s performance. It enables them to practice their strokes without getting wet. While the boys tug away on the ergs, the girls teams, which start earlier in the afternoon, take the first turn in the water in the $25,000 to $30,000 boats, called shells. Some, like Tracey Breese, a MIHS senior gripping an oar in each hand, set out in two-person boats. When rowers have two oars, it’s called sculling. Other Islanders girls, including Ashanti Grover and Claire George, take off in a boat of nine, with eight working one large oar with both hands, which is called sweeping.

Many Islanders row throughout the summer and most work out on their own erg at home. And the activity benefits both body and mind.

Bowman, who plans to attend the UW next fall, said the strict discipline and physical effort of crew has helped shape who he is.

“Hands down, my character would be completely different if I didn’t do crew,” he said. “It gives you personal discipline in every aspect of life.”

What seems to happen with crew is that family members and friends try it out and get hooked as well. It offers something for both body and mind.

One of Mt. Baker’s senior rowers, Fletch Waller, a 72-year-old Islander, said rowing requires intense concentration in a holistic sense.

“It’s a sport with a Zen-like aspect to it,” he said. “We rowers like the quiet, the peace, the discipline and the process, but it’s the desire to master the complicated stroke that can never really be mastered that drives us. Your conscious awareness has to be split between you, the individual and your teammates.”

The dependence on teammates makes crew a sport where close friendships develop. Many of the young rowers, their parents and adults become friends, carpooling to the center everyday or to races, called regattas. They also help raise money to buy the shells or other equipment.

“A lot of parents get started because their kids do it,” Waller said. “And they become good friends.”

Phil Defliese, a 58-year-old novice, said his son Will won a silver medal at the 2004 national championship with Mt. Baker in the lightweight division.

It was the same year that current UW starter and former Island athlete, Jessie Johnson led the varsity-8 boat to a national title.

“I was hooked at that point,” Defliese said. “So I decided to start looking for ways to help the program.”

Defliese helped solicit funds from other Islanders, bringing in about $70,000 in just one mailing, for a new shell house at Mt. Baker.

He began rowing himself last August.

“In 2006, I decided to bite the bullet,” he explained. “I found that I could do it. I had just enough coordination to put a stroke in the water and not look like a fool while doing it.”

Defliese completed his first competition this year and plans to continue racing, if his body allows him to. “That’s under the theory that if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger,”

Ellie Gittleman, a 47-year-old Islander mother of three and a rower at Mt. Baker, said she learned to row in college through an intramural program.

After a long break, she decided to row again for exercise.

“I do some of the competitive stuff but I don’t go out with a very competitive attitude,” Gittleman said. “You can still have fun knowing that you’re not winning.”

Gittleman, however, said she has not succeeded in convincing her children to pick up a paddle, or scull.

“They’re at an age right now where they don’t want to do anything their mom does,” Gittleman said with a laugh.

Paul Ehlers, a 6-foot-7-inch senior at MIHS who played outside tackle for the football team, said he decided to take up crew after football ended last year. He hopes to be accepted into the highly-regarded UW rowing program.

“It’s very fierce competition,” Ehlers said. “While you’re going have to be focused. You can’t even look out the side of the boat to check if you’re ahead or you’ll mess up the motion of the boat.”

Paul’s younger brother, Thomas Ehlers, is a sophomore at MIHS and began rowing a year before Paul because a former girlfriend suggested he try.

“I had just gotten done with basketball season and rowing made basketball practice seem like a piece of cake,” Thomas Ehlers said. “Right away I decided to continue. Crew is a whole new thing. It’s a precision sport that requires focus and coordination.”

The staff at Mt. Baker said there is room for more.

“We don't have a limit on equipment and we are usually able to hire additional staff if needed,” Karen Etsell from Mt. Baker said.

For adults, Waller said it doesn’t have to be all about strength.

“You don’t need brute power to make a boat move,” Waller said. “It’s applied power from coordination with teammates and execution of technique that really makes a boat move.”

Mt. Baker’s junior crew had two boats, one boys and one girls, and an adult boat in last weekend’s Opening Day races, the Windermere Cup.

“The races are definitely one of the reasons why we do this,” rower Matt Vincent said.

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