Practice takes precedence for Illinois women’s rowing club

It’s 5 a.m. and darkness is coupled with cold.

These elements, which normally drive people to seek the warmth of their beds, are instead the conditions that signify the start of another practice for the Homer Lake Forest Preserve’s guests: the Illinois women’s rowing club.

Though not immune to the weather, the focus isn’t on the crisp chill of the air or how tired these women are from lack of sleep. Certainly these concerns come before and after their get-togethers as a team, but more importantly as friends, where the extent of their plans can sometimes be complaining of fatigue. But for now, the women are preparing for the Head of the Charles Regatta, which is perhaps the biggest event of the team’s fall season. The event takes place Oct. 19-20 near Cambridge, Mass.

With more than 9,000 athletes and 300,000 spectators, the Head of the Charles Regatta is the world’s largest two-day rowing event. Drawing competitors from all levels and from all corners of the globe, this two day regatta has become a pinnacle motivating force for the Illinois’s women’s rowing club.

Such renowned worldwide acclaim has made the chance to compete in this regatta highly desirable, but difficult to attain. Teams, like Illinois, can qualify by winning the American Collegiate Rowing Association national championship in May 2012.

First attempting to enter two years ago, the Illinois women’s rowing 4-plus team did not receive a spot. Trying again, they were picked and were able to compete for the first time last year. By finishing in the top half of their field, the women’s rowing 4-plus team automatically requalified for the 2013 Regatta. The Illinois men’s teams were not able to gain an entry spot.

Illinois rowing is divided into two seasons with longer, endurance-based head races dominating the fall season and shorter, sprint races taking over the spring. Starting at about 15-20 second intervals, these head races are time trials, as opposed to where in sprint races six to eight boats are lined across and all begin at the same time.

Following last weekend’s doubleheader start of the fall season at the Trinity Quad Cities Classic in Moline, Ill., and the Head of the Rock in Rockford, Ill., the entire team took four gold, two silver and one bronze medal back to Champaign, a team record.

The women’s 4-plus team that will compete at the Head of the Charles in a head race won gold on Saturday, in a sprint race. Though the team comprises some members who went to last year’s Head of the Charles, the 4-plus actually comprises women from the varsity 8-plus team, which is a new feature to this year’s women’s rowing squad. A 4-plus team has four rowers and a coxswain, an 8-plus team’s boat carries eight rowers and the coxswain.

Composed of sophomore coxswain Sam Sanders, sophomore stroke seat Melissa Schick, junior third seat Meridith Kisting, senior second seat Marissa Josupait and sophomore bow seat Tessa Copple, the five members of the women’s varsity 4-plus team work together to create a cohesive unit primed for racing to the top.

In a 4-plus, the team will use a bow loader boat. Here Sanders, the coxswain, will be in the bow of the boat, lying almost completely backside down, watching the course play out in front of her. Sanders’s job is to steer the boat and motivate the rowers to keep going to the point where all their attention is focused on their stroke technique.

Stroke seat Schick will be seated closest to the stern and set the stroke rhythm for the rest of the team to follow.

Kisting who is the Illinois women’s rowing club president and will be in the third seat at the Head of the Charles, is aware of just how crucial the coxswain’s role is after last weekend’s Quad Cities Classic.

“I got done with the race and all I could think was that the girl in front of me had beautiful hair,” Kisting said with a laugh. “Thanks to Sam, who had to talk the whole race, we weren’t allowed to think during the race.”

With head racing, it is difficult to tell who is winning and who is losing because there are so many competitors. Here, not only does the intense physical training come into play, but the mental preparation as well is key.

“The good thing about rowing in a boat with more than one person is you always know those other girls are there and you can’t let them down,” said Kisting. “They’re pulling just as hard as you are and they’re pulling for you.”

Critical during the races themselves, this team bond is formed from the time these women are new on the novice team. From returning every day on time after maybe sleeping through that first practice, the team connects at each exhausting and extremely physical training session to become great teammates and lifelong friends. Such difficulties translate into the races where these women pull for both each other and Illinois.

The Head of the Charles is an approximate three mile course that winds up the Charles River, which separates Boston and Cambridge. With seven bridges and such constant turns to conquer, the race provides a unique challenge to competitors.

In addition, with spectators filling the banks of the river and the bridges eight to twenty deep, the atmosphere is something entirely its own, that head rowing coach Erik Kroeker described as “such a weird environment, because it’s so different.”

Arriving on Thursday night, the team will use Friday morning to take a practice run of the course to aid Sanders in picking her lines and planning her moves, getting the team’s pre-race jitters out of the way, and maybe taking a look outside the boat while rowing as well. With mental preparation playing such an important role, time on Friday and Saturday before Illinois’s race at around 4 p.m. will be used to make the course feel as natural as possible.

“You don’t want to have panic stacked upon pain, you want preparation stacked upon pain,” Kroeker said.

With clear goals of coming back to the Head of the Charles next year for its 50th anniversary, the Illinois women’s varsity 4-plus team hopes to improve upon its finish from last year.

Early morning practices have become a place for this team where the threat of shadows and cold are only minor considerations to the possibilities abound. The physical pain following a race has been replaced by a sense of accomplishment that is driving the team to further heights.

“I’ve heard quotes about rowing, such as ‘it never gets easier, you only go faster,’” Kisting said. “So from where I was as a novice, from pushing myself through that pain to the first few races, it’s just as hard now, except I’m going faster.”

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that the Illinois four-plus crew qualified for the Head of the Charles Regatta via a lottery drawing. They qualified by winning the American Collegiate Rowing Association national championship in May 2012. The Daily Illini regrets the error.