MANATEE -- Saint Stephen's Episcopal School launched a rowing team pilot program with 15 students at the helm this spring.
The first experimental Falcon crew team, which is not an official varsity sport until next year, practices with Sarasota Crew at historic Spanish Point in Osprey, and competes at Nathan Benderson Park, a 500-acre lake just off of University Parkway in Sarasota.
"We were using this year to sort of test the waters so that the kids could learn if they liked crew or not. We had 15 kids go down and participate with Sarasota Crew. We still have 10 very interested and all of them seem to be interested if and when we get this started here. So it's still in the beginning stages of interest and learning about the sport," said Head of School Jan Pullen. "Independent schools around the country have crew teams because it is very synonymous with getting kids into some of the elite schools that go along with college prep."
Benderson will host regattas such as the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships in June and the 2017 World Rowing Championships.
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Sarasota Crew originally began in 2002 for high school and middle school students. The prestigious club has earned various titles, including Florida state championship in 2011.
It features many members participating in the Junior National Team the last four years and seven members rowing for team USA in the Junior World Championships.
In addition to Sarasota Crew, there is the local crew program at Manatee County Youth Rowing, which practices at Fort Hamer Park on the Manatee River. The Manatee team has 60 students from Manatee, Palmetto and Southeast high schools.
Rowing has a long history.
The first account of rowing
was in a record of funerals in 1430 B.C. Egypt when a fighter named Amenhotep II was recognized for his rowing skills.
The organized sport of rowing started in London on the River Thames by professional rowers for ferry and taxi businesses.
The International Rowing Federation was formed in 1892 to oversee the development of rowing in countries. Since 1900, rowing has been officially considered an Olympic athletic event.
In 1976, women participants were first allowed. Rowing competitions are most popular in Australia, United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.
Contemporary rowing features two types: sculling, where a rower has one oar instead of two, and sweeping, where a rower has an oar in each hand
Rowing can provide a bridge to top rowing schools such as Ohio State, Brown, Stanford and Princeton.
"Saint Stephen's decided to explore the possibility of beginning a crew team for three reasons," said Lenny Paoletti, athletic director. "The first is that there is an interest among our students and families. Second, our school is located on the river. Third, a crew program is in keeping with the history of private schools and private/elite colleges, which many of our students will attend."
Pullen said the school ought to take advantage of McLewis Bayou running through its campus with access to Manatee River right in its back yard and the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
A major draw to rowing is it offers a break from the traditional ball-and-field sports, students said.
It was "something different than what I'm used to," said sophomore Reid Springstead.
"And a good workout," added sophomore Henry Wallace.
Senior Lauri Schleicher, who was on the Falcons swim team, said she would be driven crazy if she just went home every day after swim season ended.
"Crew had always seemed fun to me because it required a lot of the power and commitment that swimming did, so I joined just to try something new," Schleicher said. "All the Sarasota equipment that we use is top-notch, too. They really care about their rowers."
Freshman Caitlyn Lynch said she was inspired to join crew after visiting Brown University. The team approached her while she was there.
"They thought I was a freshman and suggested I try crew because I was so tall," Lynch said.
Several students mentioned crew is fun, but can be grueling.
Lynch said it can be "mentally challenging because you need to have the will to keep going."
Schleicher said the hardest thing about crew is the "not stopping." There are no breaks or timeouts, even during practice. Coxswains and coaches watch every move and if a rower takes a breather, they're told to keep going.
"When we're racing, and it feels like it's actually impossible to take even one more stroke, and we're less than halfway through a piece, it's 100 percent necessary to keep pulling. Especially when we're doing sets and there are eight other girls in the boat. We need to pull our hardest for each other," Schleicher said. "My hands get absolutely torn up. After a while, rowers get calluses, but I'm not at that point, so my hands are destroyed."
In addition to swimming, crew is the second water sport in Saint Stephen's sports curriculum. It teaches tenacity and determination, builds physical stamina and teaches rowers what team cooperation can do.
Schleicher said she's learned through crew nothing comes easy.
"We work to the point of tears some days, but that's what gets the gold and nothing beats that feeling. Every practice is painful, but at least I have my friends to get through it with me," she said.