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Local rowers make waves with college signings

Rowing isn’t one of the traditional sports to which high school athletes gravitate.

Were it not for learn-to-row camps or interest spawned because a friend of a friend of a friend once tried it, there’d be considerably less participation.

So, when three Rogue Valley senior girls made college commitments this year to compete in rowing at Division I schools near and far, it spoke to their commitment to the sport, the growth of the local club and the opportunity it presents for advancement to the next level.

St. Mary’s Alexis Benton is headed to Wisconsin, and Crusaders classmate Kate Vasey is on her way to La Salle in Philadelphia. South Medford’s Alexis McDougall is staying closer to home and will attend Oregon State, where she was recruited as a coxswain for the men’s team.

All three were introduced to crew by joining the Rogue Rowing Club, which is headquartered at Emigrant Lake.

Benton and Vasey joined prior to their eighth-grade school years. McDougall took it up just last year.

“I didn’t really have a sport going on at the time,” said Benton, who had played volleyball in middle school and swam prior to that. “I just didn’t have the love for it (swimming) anymore. By the time spring rolled around, I remembered I’d done the learn-to-row camp. I thought I should try it out because I really liked it.”

Vasey’s mom knew the mother of a rower and signed Kate up for summer camp.

“I really just fell in love with it,” said Kate Vasey. “For me, the biggest thing was the feeling of being on the water. That’s a pretty awesome feeling.”

McDougall never got to row much. A friend urged her to try the sport because she thought the petite McDougall would make a good lightweight rower. However, McDougall was placed in the coxswain seat, essentially making her the captain of the boat, and she’s adapted well in the short period she’s been involved.

Rick Brown has been the executive director and head coach of Rogue Rowing since 2015. He’s been a driving force as the club has more than doubled its junior participation, to between 50 and 60 kids annually, and added a club team at Southern Oregon University, adult programs and programs for those with disabilities.

He guessed the number of athletes who have gone on to row in college in the past five years to be about 10.

“It’s definitely been fun to see the kids take that next step,” he said.

An underlying factor, particularly for women, said Brown, has been more opportunities because colleges — particularly those with big football programs — use it as a means to comply with Title IX, the gender equity law passed in 1972.

An article in the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald last August broke down the growth of rowing in colleges.

The number of women’s programs, it noted, had grown from 21 to 88 from 1990 to 2018. The number of participants ballooned from 672 to 5,500. The average women’s roster nearly doubled to 68 in 2018.

The Wisconsin program Benton is joining was the largest, with a roster of 176. More than a dozen others ranged from 91 to 132 rowers.

The percentage of high school rowers who earn scholarship aid is greater than in other sports, said Brown.

“It’s a sport that you can have a large roster number because football is not something most colleges are getting rid of,” he said, “and, obviously, that’s not an opportunity for women. They oftentimes add women’s programs to balance that out.

“You’re able to spend a good amount of money and have the women travel and whatnot. Both women’s and men’s sides have benefited quite a bit from that.”

Not all recruits have the same formative experience as Benton and Vasey. Some, in fact, might have starred in other sports that didn’t offer the same chance to move on to college.

Rowing extends their competitive careers.

“It definitely takes a level of commitment,” said Brown. “The nice thing about the sport is they didn’t have to do it since they were 5 to be competitive and get that spot in college. It varies quite a bit. Certainly some kids have more natural talent right away and are able to show that.”

Vasey’s La Salle program had a roster of only 20 rowers this year, but the school also doesn’t field a football team. It canceled the sport in 2007.

“I’m really excited to row in college,” she said. “It’s an amazing opportunity, and I love La Salle a lot. I’m excited to spend the next four years there.”

Vasey and a doubles partner, Analiese Kirschel, of North Medford High, competed in the Youth National Championships last summer in Sarasota, Florida, where the Olympic Trials were to be staged this spring before the coronavirus forced postponement.

They qualified by placing third in the Northwest Regatta, then finished 22nd out of 24 teams at nationals.

One of the biggest challenges in rowing, said Vasey, is staying alert.

“Just keeping it interesting,” she said. “It’s really monotonous. I think it’s really important to keep yourself in the right head space for it and not get tired or bored with it.”

Benton agreed, adding that she tries to avoid overthinking things and “just let my muscle memory and my body do what it knows how to do.”

While the objective of rowers is predominantly to, well, row, they can have different roles depending on where they’re seated and the size of the shell. They can also be sweepers (each person with one oar) or scullers (each person with two oars).

“My coaches have done a really good job of keeping us all very well rounded,” said Benton. “I’m confident I can sit in any spot and any boat and work very well there and do the best I can. So I like that.”

She enjoyed converting from an individual sport, swimming, to such a team-oriented endeavor.

“To make a boat work, you really have to be connected with the people in your boat and have a good foundation with them to be able to row together,” said Benton.

She’ll have plenty of people to connect with in the robust Wisconsin program.

“I’m not quite sure where I stand in my recruiting class,” she said. “I know coming from such a small team, it will definitely be an adjustment going to a team like Wisconsin. Their roster is really big. I know I won’t be the fastest when I get there, but that’s one of the reasons why I chose it, because I know I’ll be surrounded by a ton of other girls who are constantly motivating me and pushing me.”

College crew teams have two parts of the year. In the fall, their races are 5,000 meters, and in the spring, they’re 2,000.

However, everything has been put on hold this year because of the virus.

Benton and Vasey have participated in weekly Zoom meetings with Rogue Rowing and have done what they can to stay in shape.

“I have an indoor rowing machine,” said Vasey, “so I’ve been doing a lot of workouts from that, and I make sure to stay active every day. When everything went into quarantine, our team let us borrow the indoor rowers that they had, which was very kind of them.”

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

Kate Vasey, left, and doubles partner Analiese Kirschel cross the finish line during a Rogue Rowing Club regatta. Submitted photo
Seated, left to right, Rogue Rowing Club members Kate Vasey (La Salle), Alexis Benton (Wisconsin) and Alexis McDougall (Oregon State) signed letters of intent at a fall ceremony at the club. They are flanked by coaches Jonathan Crist, left, and Rick Brown. Submitted photo