15 Strokes - Rowing Team Stays Focused Wins First-Ever National Title by Jarad Patroske - With fewer than 250 yards to go in their final race, the student-athletes of HSU's Rowing Team proved they had what it took to win the national title.

By the time coxswain Katie Harris called the last stroke in this year’s national championship event, HSU’s Varsity 8 (V8+) rowers knew that victory was in hand. “There was no way we were going to get second. It just wasn’t going to happen,” recalls rower Chyna Balonick.

When Harris said ’15 strokes’, a weird power just came
out and I knew I was going to pull with	all I had. —Rower Jacki McPherson

In the final 15 strokes of the race against seven-time defending champions Western Washington University, Harris called for a sprint. The call came a few strokes ahead of where the team had plotted its move leading up to the race, but thanks to a season of rigorous training, the rowers were ready for the pounce.

“When Harris said ‘15 strokes,’ a weird power just came out and I knew I was going to pull with all I had,” says Jacki McPherson. The rest is history. The team crushed Western Washington in the last 250 meters and won the national title outright.

“To see the actualization of that dream was really exciting,” head coach Robin Meiggs said. “I really felt they would do it this year. It was the calmest I’ve ever been in my coaching career. I’m so proud of them.”

The next day the team was back in Arcata for a winner’s reception and a few days later, Meiggs earned her second consecutive Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association Coach of the Year honors.

365 Days Until Nationals

That’s how the rowers remember the end of the season, the final triumph at the 2012 National Collegiate Athletic Association Div. II Rowing Championships. But the story of how the team went from a third place finish in 2011 to the best team in its national division began in the dark autumn mornings on the waters of Humboldt Bay.

That’s how the rowers remember the end of the season, the final triumph at the 2012 National Collegiate Athletic Association Div. II Rowing Championships. But the story of how the team went from a third place finish in 2011 to the best team in its national division began in the dark autumn mornings on the waters of Humboldt Bay.

After the team’s laudable finish in 2011, one rower wrote “365 days to Nationals” on a whiteboard in assistant coach Pat Hyland’s office. The board was updated daily to remind the teammates why they woke at 4:30 a.m. to meet at the Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center’s boat house and train alongside fishing boats and harbor seals.

If you’re lucky enough to be on the water during practice, it’s easy to see why these rowers are among the best in the nation. It begins with discipline. The significance with which rowers regard their sport is palpable in their every movement: from hoisting the 200-pound streamlined boats delicately into the water from the dock, to the 17 hours of practice they record each week of the season.

Beyond the dedication, there’s their sheer power. The combined strength of the rowers in the V8+ boat is enough to propel the craft at nearly 10 knots, or about 11.5 miles per hour—which is no small feat.

“During a full sprint, it’s not uncommon for rowers’ heart rates to reach 187 to 192, which is very close to maximum effort,” says Meiggs. The rowers, who number either four or eight (plus a non-rowing coxswain) in varsity and novice boats, must find the perfect rhythm to exploit that power and convert it to forward momentum. It’s all about synchronicity and perfecting every motion. “It’s the ultimate team sport and we practice a lot in order to find the perfect match for each boat,” explains assistant coach Adrienne McConnell.

When it comes to competition, nearly all meets take place away from home. In fact, the team hosts just one home regatta, the Dual of the Bay, which this year it handily won over Mills College in March.

Building Momentum

Shortly before the home victory, the team ranked third in the NCAA Division II, behind only Mercyhurst College and Western Washington University. It was clear to Humboldt’s rowers that they were in contention for the top slot at the nationals as the countdown to May continued on Hyland’s whiteboard.

The whole season turned into a build-up toward nationals. The coaching staff reworked the weight-training program. The coaches kept after the rowers to stay fit and fed—Coach Meiggs plied the rowers with offers of a fruit stand in her office and untold numbers of granola bars. “We really did visualize victory all season,” says Harris. “Fitness played a major role.”

As the season rolled on, the team continued to rack up victories: a conference title at the Northwest Collegiate Rowing Conference Championship Regatta in mid April; two gold medals at the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta a week later.

In truth, the momentum had been building for the title since the team’s second place finish in the nationals several years back. “We have a silver trophy from 2004, but I always told (assistant coach) Pat Hyland I wanted a gold one,” said Meiggs. “Ultimately those trophies will collect dust, but it’s the experience that will stay with the team the rest of their lives.”

Assistant Sports Information Director Sammi Sheppard contributed reporting for this article.

Quick Look: Rowing at HSU

THE 2012 RACING SEASON marked the 18th intercollegiate season for the women’s rowing team. The team was founded in 1994 when HSU expanded its offerings for female athletes. Coach Robin Meiggs has guided the transition from a competitive club sport, to a nationally ranked NCAA Division II team.

  • In 2010, the team won the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association (WIRA) Championship. HSU was the first Division II team to win the tournament, which had traditionally been won by Division I schools.
  • In 2004 the team’s Varsity 4 boat won an NCAA National Title, and the team finished second overall in the points standing.
  • HSU also hosts a men’s crew team, which operates as a club sport. Founded in 1975, the club currently fields about 25 rowers. The team took home a gold medal for a Novice Lightweight 4 boat at the 2010 WIRA championships.