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New crew team rows into Saint Stephen's athletic department

MANATEEE -- It is not often a crew team sails into view out of the blue.

However, the Saint Stephen's Episcopal School Falcons have formed one of middle- and upper-school students.

Athletic Director Lenny Paoletti said the sport was initiated by high student interest.

"We currently have 19 students participating," Paoletti said. "Additionally, our student population typically attends colleges and universities that offer crew as part of their programs, so we thought it was prudent to offer our students the opportunity to learn the sport."

Sophomore Victoria Arias and Junior Ian Sharff said they decided to join crew because it was something new at school and they were interested in trying it out.

Sophomore Gaby Pung joined to gain upper body strength.

The crew team's first practice was Feb. 18 in the school's bayou with their new boats.

This novice team needs to continue to strive to become expert rowers in the years to come, according to coaches. Andreas Leichtfuss, the new crew coach, described the team as keen to learn.

"They are very enthusiastic and driven to perform well," Leichtfuss said.

He said he hopes to "keep the rowers enthusiastic and make them skilled in rowing."

Integrating crew into school athletics is now in the developmental stage. Leichtfuss

said this first spring season will be spent simply learning how to row.

"Hopefully, the majority of the rowers will continue to row at Sarasota Scullers Youth Rowing Program in the fall," he said.

Paoloetti said the first two years will serve as a time for developing skill and passion, so the team will compete in regattas by the third year.

"Of course, this is all dependent on the student ambition and commitment. If the coach believes they are ready sooner, then we do it sooner. If the development takes longer, then we compete later," Paoletti said.

In about five years, there will be "a solid crew program competing under Saint Stephen's colors," Paoletti said.

Arias said she is eager to try something that would help her beyond the high school years.

"I enjoy being out on the water and am excited to be on the team," she said.

Rowing is a sport where one builds on mental tenacity, an important characteristic to have in academics, too, school officials say. Going out on the water twice a week, with additional available practices with the Sarasota Scullers, athletes will build perseverance and resilience, which largely carries over into academic success.

Sophomore Pung said learning how to set up the boats was the hardest.

Arias said, "Learning how to row and steer and how to keep the boat balanced (was difficult). "We are just now starting to go out on the water, but it is difficult learning how to do everything properly."

Needed rower qualities, which Leichtfuss mentioned include: "being a good team player, becoming skilled in your rowing technique, and improving basic physical capabilities, like endurance, strength and overall fitness."

Pung said: "I've always had very weak arms and core muscle, and I wanted to improve that before I graduate from high school because there is a big chance that I will need the physical strength later."

Paoletti said the rowers need to be physically strong enough to work their way down the Manatee River, and need to know how to handle their boats.

"Crew is not a sport for the casual athlete," Paoletti said. "Conditioning is a major element in the sport. Rowers will spend many hours training to row and not actually on the water or in the skull. Of course, they must be very strong swimmers. If they flip their boats, which happens a lot especially in the beginning stages, they must be able to flip their skulls right side up, climb back in and continue to row."

Team attitude required

Being a rower requires a team attitude: "When rowing in a multiple-person scull, they will learn quickly that each member must be in sync with each other or their efforts will have a counter effect on the outcome," Paoletti said. "A rower will develop mental toughness. Rowers row regardless of the weather. This spring we've experienced some very cold and windy weather. Rowers row in all weather, and the water can be very cold."

Crew has not been accepted as an official school sport by the Florida High School Athletic Association and remains a club sport, which has its advantages.

"As a club team, they can train and compete year round. However, many of our students participating in crew do other sports as well, so we will only be offering crew, in the beginning, as a spring sport," Paoletti said. "Although, if the team develops and attracts crew-only students, then they could train year-round at Saint Stephen's."

Crew is a sport like no other in the amount of skill a rower must develop in addition to mental and physical strength.

Leichtfuss described crew's uniqueness in comparison with all other sports: "Rowing needs an infrastructure, like a launching dock, a motor boat for coaching, storage for the rowing boats. To build up, you need knowledge and a high amount of commitment."