Rowing: Inches Make Champions

  • By Julie Brown
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  • October 20, 2011 11:11 AM
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MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – The sport of rowing is not one in which achievements are often recognized.

So when the West Virginia University rowing team acquired a new Varsity 4+ Vespoli racing shell and was contemplating a name, the decision to reach out and ask some former team members for help came as a pleasant surprise.

“It was such an honor,” said former coxswain Christine DeRienzo. “When Tina Griffith sent us an email telling us that they were going to name the boat and wanted us to help, I immediately pulled out my old photo album and starting looking through everything.”

DeRienzo had many fond memories to reminisce upon, including the 2001 season when she led the women’s Varsity 4+ to a first-place finish at the Dad Vail Regatta, subsequently earning an invitation to the Henley Royal Regatta in England, one of the most prestigious events in rowing.

In fact, it was this very accomplishment that had five women traveling from all areas of the country two weekends ago, from both east and west coast, to come to Morgantown and participate in a boat christening in their honor.

It had been nearly ten years since Griffith, Risha Kelley, Erin Nisbet, Noelle Dodge and DeRienzo had come together for a crew related event, and for a few, the first time they had seen each other in nearly a decade.

There was laughter, hugs, and memories to share, but perhaps most importantly, a lasting legacy to leave behind for future generations of Mountaineer rowers.

A legacy of what can happen when hard work, determination and enthusiasm are put forth every day.

The journey to Henley began during the team’s spring training trip in Miami. The coach at that time, Nancy LaRocque, noticed right away that this group of women had something special.

“She noticed that we had really good flow and really good body mechanics,” said Dodge. “When she saw that she kept telling us that we could be great and that we could be the best. We believed that, and we just felt unstoppable. We were all mentally in it to win it.”

The team won its first race of the season convincingly, beating Cincinnati and Louisville to the finish line at Harsha Lake in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a time of 7:23.6. But it was the second race of the season that really changed the way they looked at things.

After making it to the finals at the Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Association’s (SIRA) Regatta in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the team came in second to Jacksonville by mere inches. It was a loss that would spur the team on to great success, though they didn’t know it at the time.

“We had such drive after the race in Tennessee,” detailed Nisbet. “It just drove us for the rest of the season. We just had confidence and we walked around with our heads up knowing that no one was going to take us down again and no one was going to beat us. I just remember having this fuel, and this feeling inside that once we got into the boat, no one was going to get in our way. After we finished a race, we were focused on the next challenge and thinking about how we were going to achieve and overcome it.”

The team next took on the BIG EAST Championships, where they won in a BIG EAST record setting time of 7:33.08, before moving on to the Dad Vail Regatta.

The Dad Vail Regatta is the largest collegiate regatta in the United States, with over 100 colleges and universities from across the United States and Canada converging in Philadelphia during the second weekend of May.

It would have been an honor for the West Virginia team just to finish well. But this Varsity 4+ had trained long and hard for a race such as this, and they weren’t going to take home anything less than gold.

“When you really mesh with your team and your group, you really feel the flow,” Nisbet explained. “You can just feel and anticipate each other’s movements, something that’s really hard to obtain. But once you get that and you know what that feeling is, you’re able to get that in a lot of those races. Instead of four rowers, we were able to become one which is really what drove us.”

The Mountaineers earned a much deserved victory that day before heading back to Morgantown to finish school and start the beginning of their summer vacations. They never anticipated what would happen next.

“After we won Vails, we didn’t know right away that we were going to go to Henley,” Nisbet reminisced. “There were a few weeks in between and then we got the call and we had to come back to school. We had all just started our summer jobs and the next thing we know we get a call saying that we need to come back to school for a few weeks to train.”

“My parents had got me a graduation trip to Mexico and we couldn’t go,” laughed DeRienzo. “My brother was so mad at me!”

Invitations to the Henley Royal Regatta are few and far between. After the team’s convincing win, the Dad Vail Regatta organizers selected the West Virginia team to travel to Henley because it felt that the team had the best chance of winning, despite the fact that no team the committee had ever selected had ever made it past the second round.

Upon arriving in England, the women noticed right away that things were done much differently in Europe.

Since the Henley Royal Regatta was first held in 1839, it was established long before national and international rowing federations existed. It has its own rules, one being the length of the course.

“I remember that the course was 1,500-meters for the women because as a women’s crew you couldn’t finish or go over the men’s finish line which was at 2,000-meters,” explained Dodge. “We trained for 2,000-meters and we only had to race 1,500. It made it somewhat easier, but in Europe they row at a much faster rate and every stroke was faster. So the faster pace made it much more challenging because the way we rowed was slow, strong and steady.”

“You’d think it would be easier just because it’s shorter,” added DeRiezno. “But your body is already trained for 2,000-meters so you know how to hold it.”

In addition, instead of racing four to six crews at a time as they do in the United States, at Henley, only two crews race in each heat. Due to this, the women had to race in three rounds, each with a quick turnaround. They sailed through the first round, easily defeating Bowdoin’s crew.

The next race wasn’t so easy, however.

“The second race was really close; it had the feel of a final race. It was against Birmingham and we emptied the tank on that one because it was such a neck to neck race,” said Dodge. “We took the boat off the water afterwards and put it on the shore and literally five minutes later we had to pick it up and put it back in the water for the finals.”

The team came in second to England’s Oxford Brookes University in the final round. Despite coming in second place, there is no denying that the team accomplished something that no one could ever have expected.

“When we came back, even though we didn’t win, it was considered such an honor for the University that the president at the time, David Hardesty, got us plaques to honor us for going over and representing West Virginia,” said DeRienzo.

“It’s the best plaque I ever received,” added Griffith.

It seems only appropriate that ten years later, this team was welcomed back to Morgantown with open arms to celebrate a journey that hasn’t been equaled since.

And only more appropriate that the shell was christened the Inches Make Champions, in honor of the race in Tennessee that truly propelled the team on its record-breaking path to Henley.

As the team stood in front of the newest members of the rowing program, telling stories, drinking champagne and reminiscing, it became very clear that while many rowing achievements may go unrecognized, this is one that will never be forgotten.