Connecticut Rules

By Jen Whiting

Photo by SportGraphics.

If you’re a parent of a rower, you’ve seen this. If you row yourself, you’ve felt it. It’s the feeling that spreads through the crowds at multi-day sprint regattas: that nagging ache in your quads as you walk from your crew’s tent to the boat trailer, the tinge of sun on your cheeks that burns just a little too hot, and the layer of dust that covers your ankles. It’s Sunday, and you’ve been racing for a few days. Just as the fatigue of the big events washes over the rowers and parents and coaches, the A finals are beginning and the podium spots are within reach of the six crews that take the starting line. But if you’re from Connecticut, and it’s Sunday, you better make sure you have enough supplies in your food tent. Odds are, nobody’s going home too soon.

At the USRowing Youth National Championships there are typically 18 events: women’s and men’s lightweight and open-weight classes of all categories of boat classes. Over the past five years, the number of podium spots (gold, silver, and bronze medals) at youth nationals that have been filled by rowers from one of the southern Connecticut crews has risen from three in 2013 to 12 in 2017.

Let’s pause there for just a minute. The crews that have increased their representation on the podium at the national championships from 3 to 22 percent in just five years are all along an 18-and-a-half-mile stretch of highway just north of New York City, with one outlier a 30-minute drive north and one club just a few miles over the New York border. This seven-fold growth in podium spots over a five-year span begs the question, “What the heck is going on in Connecticut?” To answer this question, I took a shot at getting the folks in Connecticut to talk. Seven interviews later, here’s what I found.

The clubs that are driving the growth in junior rowing (and masters rowing, too) along the I-95 corridor just north of New York City form a short list: Connecticut Boat Club, GMS Rowing Center, Greenwich Crew, Saugatuck, Maritime Rowing, New Canaan, Norwalk River Rowing, and the club that is just a few miles into New York from the Connecticut border, Row America-Rye. These eight clubs have grown significantly (or got their start) in the past eight years. Their junior programs have swelled in numbers and in stature, and their masters programs have also followed suit.

I asked Liz Trond, the founder and head coach of Connecticut Boat Club, a high-performance girls’ youth rowing club in Norwalk, Conn., what she thinks is happening in this small radius of high-performing clubs; seven of the eight clubs are within a nine-mile radius; three of them are so close to each other they could almost share parking lots.

“There are smart and talented athletes with smart and driven parents in the state of Connecticut,” she says. “I can’t talk about other states, but here the parents ‘get’ the sport. They understand what the sport means, and what it means to their kids.” Trond is not only the leader of Connecticut Boat Club, she is also the head coach of the U.S. junior national team. “These athletes have grown up with a high-performance mindset. Whether it’s in academics, athletics, or watching their parents in their jobs, the expectation is to perform.” She pauses here, reflecting. “Sometimes my job is to take the pressure off. Our neighbors—Greenwich, Norwalk, Saugatuck—they’re all within one or two exits [off I-95] of each other. It’s a high-performance area, a high-expectations area. Think about it, you’ve got New York City and Stamford nearby. The parents are working in high-performance, high-stress jobs. We couldn’t do this without the parents. They are critical to the success we have.”

What’s funny is that when I interviewed some of the parents of Trond’s rowers, they said the opposite. “It’s the coaches. We couldn’t do it without the coaches.” Maybe, by way of their professional experience,  they understand the symbiosis that has to be in place for any high-performing unit.

When I mention the increase in podium spots over the past five years to Trond she spends absolutely zero time on it. Instead, she turns toward the future. “The question that is always in my mind—the thing that keeps me and my coaches evolving—is, How do we give our rowers more opportunities? How do we keep the high-performers improving?” Trond knows that the success of the crews around her drives her club, as well. “I have a good relationship with the Saugatuck coach. Obviously we want to win, but I want the state of Connecticut to win. It’s a tiny little state. The rowing going on is exciting, and putting Connecticut rowing on the map is exciting, too.”

I caught up with Trond at an early spring regatta and the sun is high overhead. As boats are rigged and dogs run through the trailer area, Trond seems to be in a zone. It’s as if we’re sitting in a quiet space, with absolutely no distractions. Amidst the churn of the trailer lot, Trond talks about the evolution of Connecticut rowing. “For me, it’s getting out of the safe spot. Coaches evolve, too. We’re all growing into the smaller boat classifications, developing our rowers in more boat categories. I want to give the athletes as many opportunities as possible. I always ask, What did I wish I could have tried in high school?”

Trond describes the evolution of the clubs in recent years, linking the coaches who are in Connecticut to the growth of the clubs as well as the growth of the rower’s performance. One of the things she dwells on is the fact that, recently, rowers who grew up rowing in a Connecticut club are now coming back to coach those same clubs, driving the cycle of development and performance even deeper into the culture of winning. “When Heidi Hunsberger joined Greenwich [Crew]—she rowed for me as a junior—I was excited. Yes, they’re our competition, but there’s also pride, there’s a sense of camaraderie. Gordon [Getsinger] at Saugatuck, Marko Serafimovski at Row America-Rye, Dan Walsh and Yan and Olga [Vengerovskiy] and Julia [Chagina] at Maritime. There’s a strong sense of respect between the coaches and that filters to the athletes.”

Sharon Kriz, the director of rowing at Saugatuck Rowing, which is in Westport, just one town over from Norwalk, tells me the same thing about the development and growth of rowing in Connecticut. “You’re getting good coaches that stay in Connecticut. The more kids you bring in, the more filter to the top. You’ve got great athletes, great parents, and great boats,” she chuckles a bit and reveals a bit of the coach’s side of the high-performance environment. “With all of that, you better go fast!”

Saugatuck Rowing sits very near one of two major boat companies in the area, WinTech Racing. “There’s a passion for the sport,” Kriz explains. “Howard Winkelvoss [the owner of WinTech Racing and the founder of the RowAmerica program] has a passion for giving to the sport.” Kriz has touched on another important factor in the arena of Connecticut rowing: easy access to equipment. The other boat company that has a base in the area is Vespoli, located just a few exits up I-95 in New Haven.

But it isn’t only attracting good coaches and having access to some of the best equipment in the industry that builds what is becoming known as one of the rowing powerhouse areas in the country. Clubs need good water to row on. David Orner, one of the parents with Maritime Rowing Club, describes the rivers that the Connecticut clubs ply. “The Housatonic River, the Norwalk River, the Saugatuck River—and more—are flat, rowable rivers. And the clubs have made a concerted effort to keep the rivers open to rowing. We work hard to make sure they’re protected and stay accessible, even as development is happening in the area.” At Maritime, there is such interest in the area, Orner is spearheading the development of a coastal rowing program to augment the opportunities available to his club. “We’ve had some amazing coaches. They create programs for the rowers to train hard but still have fun with it. We’re in the middle of so many great collegiate programs. And the clubs benefit from the growing visibility and notoriety in the area.”

Cyra Borsy, a parent whose son, Ryan, has rowed at Maritime for four years, and will row at Temple University as a freshman next year, tells me, “The kids are ‘all in,’ and it’s not unique to Maritime. When love flourishes and you have a place you enjoy, it’s not a task to train. The kids are that much more dedicated.” She laughs as she explains her efforts—along with an entire cadre of parents—to “protein-up” the food tent at regattas. “We try to keep everyone fueled up.” And then, just as quickly, she gets serious. “Dan Walsh [the Maritime head coach] has been amazing. You have all of these people who are really supportive and want your kid to succeed. They are interested in developing them as human beings, not just as athletes.”

Rita Crispino, a parent of a rower at nearby Great River Rowing, a club that trains on the Housatonic River in nearby Shelton, says, “It’s not only the parent that develops the child, it’s the people you surround them with.”

So is it the water the clubs have to row on, or the access to equipment, the parents, or the coaches? Or does a club need a combination of all of this? Jim Batson, whose daughter rows for Connecticut Boat Club (and who sits on the board of CBC) adds another element to the growing formula for success. “There are more clubs and less high school-based programs in the area. The absence of high school teams means we have bigger clubs. When you have more rowers coming into a club, regardless of their school, more filter to the top. I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg, but the top coaches go to where the rowers are, and vice versa.” He pauses to watch a race passing by, “C-B-C!” He turns back to me and keeps his thought going, admitting what everyone knows, “We are A-type parents but the stats for women getting recruited to college bear it out, being a successful rower opens doors for you.”

Margie Batson leads the conversation on. “As athletes, they want to be all they can be. Liz [Trond] instills in them—well, she’s priming them for the Olympics, for the national team. Meticulous technique, even on the erg. And you’re only late once with Liz.” Margie smiles and explains one of the first lessons her daughter learned in rowing. “There’s no triangulation between the coaches and the rowers and the parents. Nope, it’s direct contact between Liz and the rowers. Direct coaching.”

Cori Abbruzzese, the mother of Julia, a sophomore rower at CBC who was racing the pair on this sunny day, says, simply. “We feel like professionals. The girls are treated like professionals. Liz, Pierrick [Absolonne], Jim [Sweitzer]—all their coaches—the girls shift their priorities because of how these coaches treat them. Their hearts are here, in this club.” She slows, “Our hearts are here.”

And so we’re back to the coaches, who tell me it’s about the parents and the athletes. Maybe it’s the cycle—that symbiosis that exists between interconnected elements of any successful system—that is at play in Connecticut. Maybe it’s the notion that no one element can build success without being connected to the rest of the whole. Whatever it is, it’s changing the face not only of the podium spots at the major regattas. but of how a team functions, how practices are run, and how regattas are supported. Parents cheer from the shore, fill the tents, flip the chicken on the grill, and restock the home-baked banana bread that disappears when a boat returns from its race. Coaches depend on the support the parents give—to their son or daughter and to the team—while they set the expectations for performance.

The sun is tipping into the afternoon sky. As I finish talking with Liz Trond, two of her rowers ask her to scoot out of the way of the boat she was working on when we started talking; they need to put it on the trailer’s center rack so they can load the other shells, too. I chuckle. “Isn’t the coach supposed to be the one directing what’s going on the trailer?” I ask. “Oh, no,” she laughs. “They know everything they need to. And they know to get me out of the way when it’s time for boat loading.” In Connecticut, things seem to be done just a little bit differently.