When you think of high school athletes in this area, lacrosse, basketball, baseball and track are some of the sports that come to mind.
But five Horace Greeley High School students have found success on a far different playing field.
Seniors Ellie Leites and Kevin Phillips, sophomores Jack Meinen and William Wright and freshman Matt Phillips have been competing for Greenwich Crew, a rowing team based out of the Greenwich Water Club in Connecticut. The quintet was part of a larger contingent of team members that made a name for themselves at this year’s USRowing Northeast Youth Championships in Worcester, Mass. last month, helping Greenwich Crew to first-place finishes in the men’s, women’s and overall points standings in the regional competition.
The results helped the five Greeley students along with other Greenwich Crew teammates earn berths in the Youth National Championships to be held this Friday through Sunday in Gold River, Calif.
“It’s a huge event,” said Wright, who will be part of the Men’s Youth 4+ boat, a four-man boat, along with Matt Phillips. “When you say nationals, it’s sounds like something we’re not supposed to go to, like demigods go to.”
Meinen and Kevin Phillips will be in the same boat for the Men’s Lightweight 8+, which has eight team members. Meanwhile, Leites, who is the coxswain for her boat – the leader who steers and directs her teammates – will be competing in the Women’s 8+ this weekend.
The success each member has achieved has been only after a rigorous training and practice schedule since they made the decision to take up rowing either in middle school or by the time they started high school. Practices are typically held six times a week for at least two hours following school Monday through Friday as well as on Saturday.
“You always want to be working on your conditioning, cardio and strength because that, when it comes down to it, is one of the most important things,” Meinen said.
“A lot of the times when it comes to who wins, it’s who can pull harder and who has the strength to do that,” he added.
To compete at the level that the students have achieved, has required a year-round commitment, Leites said. Being on the water may be seasonal, but the training never stops.
“In the winter we’ll put the boats away,” Leites said. “We’re not fortunate enough to be out on the water all year round like some of the West Coast teams. I think that’s a good team-bonding time because you go through a lot of hard workouts.”
Most events are 2,000 meters, including the races this weekend at Nationals. Depending on wind and weather conditions, races of that distance are typically completed in six to seven minutes. The boats are usually made of carbon fiber.
Much of the power for crew members comes not from their upper bodies, but their legs, said Leites, who plans to row in college next year when she goes to Brown University. Team success is also dependent on having the crew members in each boat perfectly in sync to maximize effort.
“You learn a lot about mental toughness being part of rowing, and the fun part of it is being on the water,” she said. “I think you learn to push yourself through some pretty uncomfortable situations.”
Each of the students found their way to rowing through random circumstances. Kevin and Matt Phillips, who are brothers, had an older brother who played football but suffered concussions. Their brother searched for another sport that would lend itself to his body type and discovered rowing, falling in love with the sport and getting his two brothers to take it up as well.
Kevin Phillips, who will be attending Binghamton in the fall, said there’s nothing better than being on the water.
“You’re right off the water in this tiny, tiny boat, it like changed everything and it made me fall in love with the sport,” he said.
His brother, Matt, said rowing has made him stronger and has helped him get into the best shape of his life.
Wright, who hadn’t really taken to any sport, had an older cousin who started rowing and thought it would be something he’d like to give a try. Although he didn’t immediately take to it, the camaraderie he developed and the thrill of competing made it fun and rewarding.
“When you cross that finish line, it feels so good, especially if you’re in the front of the pack,” Wright said. “Sometimes you don’t have to win. It’s just the accomplishment of doing something like that feels amazing. Whey you medal, then all those seasons and months and training finally pay off. It’s an incredible feeling.”
Meinen said his mother first suggested the sport while he was in middle school, but it wasn’t until a friend became involved in eighth grade that he followed.
Meanwhile, Leites had been a swimmer through middle school, but grew tired of the pool. One day before entering high school, she walked into the room where her father was watching a rowing competition and she was immediately intrigued. She joined a camp at Greenwich Water Club the summer before entering high school and became hooked.
“So I did that, and I joined the novice team that fall,” she said. “So that’s how I got into it.”
Rowing is also the ultimate team sport, team members said.
“In crew, you have to be perfectly in sync, you have to coordinate with everyone, you have to know every single person in your boat,” Meinen said. “You create this community, you have to know how they move. You have to create this community that’s really strong and really supports each other.”
The Greeley students said they’re excited about testing themselves against some of the best teams in their divisions from across the United States when they reach California later this week.
While they’re looking forward to the challenge, it promises to be a great experience.
“Training throughout the season can be kind of miserable sometimes,” Meinen said. “It’s just constant work. But when you cross that finish line, when you’re rowing that’s just the best feeling ever. There’s no better feeling than that.”