BY MICHAEL KELLY
NISKAYUNA — Most high school athletes grow up competing in their chosen sport, crafting their skills for years before competing at the varsity level.
The members of Niskayuna Rowing, the school’s crew program, are a bit different. Outside of some leisurely rowing — such as in a kayak or rowboat — as youths, athletes who come to Niskayuna Rowing are typically novices in the sport.
“I think most people haven’t taken a stroke in a boat like this before they come out here,” said Stephen Davenport, a member of Niskayuna High’s boys varsity team.
Davenport, like most seniors, is in his sixth season with the program. Kids who choose to row in the seventh grade with program director Molly Grygiel’s modified squad tend to stick with the year-round sport. Rachel Padula, a senior who has signed to row for Cornell University, said there’s something special about the sport that helps it to hang onto the participants that give it a shot.
“I’d done all the sports growing up, really. Tennis, basketball — you name it, I’ve played it,” said Padula. “But then I came to rowing . . . and it consumes you, almost. I just fell in love with it from the first stroke.”
Those first strokes are often pretty rough for most who compete with Niskayuna Rowing, which works out of Aqueduct Park during the year’s warmer months and practices on the Mohawk River. At present, the squad practices every weekday for a few hours and competes in weekend regattas, the first of which was April 25-26 in Saratoga Springs.
Learning the technique is the toughest part of the sport for rookies. A competitive rowing stroke involves a person’s full body and is a bit counterintuitive. The body’s core muscles do the bulk of the work, not the arms. In fact, pulling on the oars is only the final portion of a stroke, after the rest of a rower’s body has done most of the work.
“Most people get in a boat, they put their hands on the two oars and they think, ‘I must pull on these,’ ” said Grygiel. “But, that’s not rowing.”
Grygiel said it usually takes the program’s rowers a little while to become consistent with the stroke technique. At no point, though, does it become easy.
“Nothing about this is natural,” said Davenport. “You have to train your body to act fluidly in a very unnatural way.”
For more veteran Niskayuna Rowing competitors, the challenge is rowing in concert with one another. The program typically fields boats of either four or eight rowers — plus a coxswain, who steers the boat — and each rower needs to be in sync with the rest.
When the spring season starts, Niskayuna Rowing varsity girls head coach Stacey Apfelbaum said, the program’s rowers are already in shape after a winter rowing on indoor machines called ergs. The first few weeks of practice, she said, are used to find out which combination of rowers will work together best.
“And, it’s not just the eight strongest girls that go in the first boat,” she said, explaining that finding the best combination involves putting together the right mix of competitive fire, skill and cooperation.
In all, about 120 kids are participating this spring in Niskayuna Rowing, a season that will extend into the summer campaign. From there, the program’s athletes will head right into the fall season and get a one-month break before the winter season — which, because of the climate, is all done indoors on ergs, and is mostly for practice and conditioning, though there are a few competitions, as well.
Typically, there is a small break between the winter and spring seasons. A scheduling quirk, though, did not allow that for this year, as the winter season went extra long.
“The seasons butted up against each other, so they really only got about 24 hours off,” varsity boys head coach Mike Gilbert said.
Padula said the lack of a true offseason is not all that bad for the program’s athletes. They are there, she said, because they made a choice to commit fully to the sport.
“You can just like it at first and get away with it,” she said. “But, eventually, you have to love it because of the hours you put into it on a daily basis. . . . It takes up a lot of your life and you have to be able to appreciate [the sport] in all its glory to be able to do that.”
Niskayuna Rowing had a good showing at the April 25-26 Saratoga Invitational Regatta, including the following first-place finishers:
- Men’s Freshman 8+ Flight 1: 5:17.101
- Women’s Freshman 8+ Flight 1: 5:49.600
- Men’s Freshman/Novice 4x Flight 2: 5:25.900