Santa Barbara County rowing team thrilled to compete at championships
It was a pandemic-era world rowing championship without the usual thousands of spectators, and the Santa Barbara County team placed third among the three teams on a windy day.
For the record, the Italian team placed first, and the German team, second, at the recent Under 23 World Rowing Championships in Račice in the Czech Republic.
And for the record: Never mind that the Mission Rowing Club team, which trains at Lake Cachuma, placed third. They have the spirit of champions.
Their coach is rightly proud of them. And the athletes felt like they were on top of the world.
“It was a great opportunity,” teammate Isabella Begley of Moorestown, N.J. and Syracuse University, told the News-Press. “I am saddened we were not able to represent our country and schools better, but I don’t regret a single thing about the experience. I am more motivated than ever to train and get better.”
Grace D’Souza, of Whitefish Bay, Wis., and a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was happy to be there too.
“It was an amazing opportunity to get to race against and with the best athletes in the world,” the Mission Rowing Club athlete told the News-Press. “I am humbled by the opportunity we earned. It was truly inspiring to have the honor to race at such an amazing venue with the elite U23 athletes in the world.”
Going to the world championships was a lifelong dream for Ruthie Lacy of Oklahoma City, Okla., and Oklahoma City University.
“I am beside myself that I have had this opportunity so young,” Lacey told the News-Press. “I am looking forward to rejuvenating and then getting back to training to see how far I can take this.”
The four women, who also include Grace Beery of Seattle and Boston University, got to the world championships by excelling in June at U23 National Team Trials at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Fla. That’s where the athletes won the lightweight women’s quadruple scull with a time of 6:59 on a 2-kilometer course.
But in the Czech Republic, the women faced something that wasn’t present in Florida. They rowed into a strong head wind traveling at 5 or more mph, Groom said.
He said the team’s time in the final heat in the Czech Republic was 7:05 for the 2-kilometer course, slower than the approximately 6:40 it had achieved on days with far less wind during training at Lake Cachuma.
Still, “they did well,” Head Coach Conal Groom said about the women, who are under 23, a requirement to compete at the U23 World Championships. “They’re a young crew. Two of them have two or more years of eligibility.” (D’Souza and Begley are both 22 and won’t be able to compete next year in the U23 competition.)
Groom, a former Olympian rowing athlete, said he was impressed by what the women did in an atypical year.
Because of the pandemic, they had only four weeks to prepare and compete at nationals, then the world championships, and that put the Santa Barbara County team at a disadvantage, Coach Groom, a Santa Ynez resident, told the News-Press. “The Italian team had been rowing together for three months.”
Still, his team made it all the way to the world championships despite the pandemic.
“All the people who made the team this year had to overcome so many challenges over the last 18 months,” said Groom, whose athletes’ practices together at Lake Cachuma were delayed until June 5. “Whether they’re the best rowers, they’re certainly the toughest.”
The short season posed an additional challenge on top of a demanding sport that requires the entire body, a strong core and an impeccable sense of rhythm.
“It’s like synchronized swimming,” Groom said.
“The back and the arms are working together as the body pivots,” he said. “And they do that at 38 strokes a minute.”
Groom stressed the physical and mental discipline required for rowing. He said the team had two-hour practices in the mornings and another practice between 90 minutes and two hours in the afternoons. In-between that or in the evening, they stretched and did some training with resistance bands.
Groom said his team had a surrealistic experience in the Czech Republic, where the pandemic meant there weren’t usually the mammoth audience and opening and closing ceremonies.
“The girls didn’t get to see how big of an event this normally would be,” Groom said. “Normally there would be thousands of spectators.”
Still, the support staff and coaches were cheering at the 2-kilometer outdoor swimming venue, and Groom and the other coaches rode bicycles to keep up with the teams as they rowed.
“Ultimately, it was about the athletes. There was no pomp or circumstance, but it gave the kids an opportunity for the first time in 18 months to go to a world championship. It was canceled last year,” Groom said. “They were all extremely happy and proud to represent the U.S.”
He said three of the women will return to college, where they’re on their schools’ rowing teams. D’Souza, who recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is planning to go to law school.
Groom recalled his own experience competing in rowing in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
“The racing is racing; that was no different. It’s going as fast as you can,” Groom said. He said the difference was the pomp and circumstance, the huge crowd and the gathering of such great athletes from various sports in one location.
“Everyone you saw was in the top 1 percent of the world in something,” said Groom, who finished 12th in the competition.
Groom said he believes his Santa Barbara team includes a couple Olympics hopefuls. He declined to single them out by name, but emphasized his pride in all four.