STORY BY SOFIA SCEKIC | PHOTO BY LISA WORTHY
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It’s a tale of two rowing generations for the five women competing for the two coveted seats in the U.S. lightweight double for the 2024 Paris Olympics: Mary Jones and Michelle Sechser have nearly a decade of international racing experience, while Sophia Luwis and Audrey Boersen both were graduated from college in 2020 and made their first U.S. National Team just last year. Molly Reckford, although closer in age to Jones and Sechser, took off from rowing for several years before returning as a masters rower in 2018 and has international racing experience closer to that of Luwis and Boersen.
Despite the age spread, all five women are vying for the two seats in the lightweight double that will contend at next year’s Olympic Games after Josy Verdonkschot, USRowing’s chief high-performance officer, switched Olympic qualification last year from a trials event to a camp event.
The four athletes who finished in the top spots of the lightweight single sculls at the Winter Speed Order—Jones, Sechser, Boersen and Reckford—were invited to selection camp for the lightweight double and have been working for the last several months primarily under Isabelle Jacobs, USRowing’s high-performance sculling coach. Although Luwis finished fifth in the single sculls at that event, Verdonkschot said she’s in the running for the lightweight double and will have the opportunity next year to race the others for a seat.
For the veterans, one of the most notable aspects of this year’s Olympic-selection cycle is the change from a process based on results in trials to one based on performance in camps. Sechser made her first international lightweight-double sculls team in 2013 when pairings were made primarily by athletes reaching out to each other. She and Emily Schmeig ended up in the lightweight double in 2017 after texting with Facebook Messenger. Sechser has had to alter her life to adapt to USRowing’s training plan because she no longer has the freedom to choose her training partner, coach, and training location.
“It’s been a huge shift this whole calendar year in terms of the camps that are mandated and needing to be on [Verdonkschot and USRowing’s] plan and doing it in the locations he’s decided,” Sechser said. Verdonkschot implemented the change after last September’s World Rowing Championships to ensure the United States fields the fastest women’s lightweight double possible and to protect athletes from injury that may knock them out of the Olympics.
For the last several seasons, Sechser has paired with Reckford to represent the United States in the women’s lightweight double. The duo finished second in the event at last year’s World Rowing Championships and also took fifth at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (which were held in 2021 because of Covid).
Sechser called the switch to a camp boat “a hard pill to swallow” because of her experience building a championship-caliber double from the ground up with Reckford.
“[Reckford] and I first got together in January 2020 and really bootstrapped that doubles project together,” she said. “Everything was a ‘we’ decision between [Reckford] and me—when are we going down to Florida to get on the water, what coach are we going to work with to get ready for Olympic trials?”
The transition to a camp boat was challenging particularly because of the positive experiences she’d had with Sechser, Reckford said.
“After Worlds last year, we still thought of each other as partners. We still had this history together and we still had plans for a future together,” Reckford explained. “But there was this sort of weird undertone of ‘We have to be careful. We don’t want to be seen as somehow rigging the process.’
“It’s us versus the world if you’re a trials boat, and you really lean on each other, but as a camp boat, you’re not as likely to be each other’s partners. It’s not us versus the world anymore. It’s you individually versus the world. So that was a very big shift.”
Reckford rowed on the open-weight team at Dartmouth until her senior year in 2015 but after graduating quit rowing for three years because her collegiate career left her feeling unhappy and under-appreciated. She picked up the sport again as a masters athlete in 2018, and after a successful masters championship in which she won six races, Reckford went to Sarasota-Bradenton in 2019 to race the speed order.
By virtue of that trip, she was invited to an unofficial “selection camp” for doubles partners run by Sarasota Crew head coach Casey Galvanek, and although she didn’t find a doubles partner for the upcoming trials, she did make her way into a lightweight quad. Realizing she had an opportunity to go further with her rowing, she quit her job in California, packed her car, and drove to Florida to train full-time — “and the rest soon became history,” she said.
Sechser likened the experience of building the double with Reckford from scratch to the so-called “IKEA effect”—the psychological phenomenon whereby people place a higher value on something they’ve built or created. Now, with the lightweight double a camp boat, there’s not the same opportunity to begin from zero, find a partner and coach, assemble a racing schedule, and choose the best equipment.
“After Tokyo, I didn’t retire, specifically because [Reckford] and I kept improving so much every month and with every race,” she continued. “Tokyo was incredible but definitely left a lot of hunger there for me. I felt like it was very obvious that if [Reckford] and I kept improving the way we had been, there was still more speed to tap into.”
Sechser and Reckford were on track to represent the United States in the women’s lightweight double at this year’s World Rowing Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, until World Rowing Cup II in Varese, Italy in late June. That’s when Verdonkschot decided to replace Reckford with Jones, meaning that Sechser will be racing in early September with a new partner.
The two veterans raced the open-weight double sculls at the Senior National Team trials in late July to get some racing experience together before the 2023 World Rowing Championships. They finished in second place, nearly six seconds behind Sophia Vitas and Kristi Wagner—two athletes who stand over six feet tall and have raced open-weight their entire careers.
Jones rowed at the University of Tennessee from 2004 to 2008 as an open-weight but decided to pursue lightweight rowing after college. She went through Olympic selection procedures before the 2016 Games but was not picked and moved to Boston to continue training in the lightweight single. She switched to the lightweight double in 2018, placing second at the 2018 World Rowing Championships.
After battling a significant back injury in 2019 that kept her from rowing most of the year, she was prepared to race the 2020 season with the aim of earning a spot in the Olympics out of trial, but Covid quashed those plans and she spent another season without racing. Jones and Schmeig raced the 2021 trials together in the lightweight double but didn’t qualify for the Olympics, so Jones went into selection for the open-weight women’s quad but was not chosen for that boat, either. Unsure whether she wanted to keep rowing, she realized eventually that she still loved the sport and returned to the lightweight single.
The challenges continued in 2022; her father was diagnosed with cancer in July and died in October. Despite taking off a fair amount of time, she came back in time to earn a spot at the lightweight-double selection camp.
“I was happy to be racing again at the first camp and then, going into the double selection and the race at the World Cup, to just enjoy the really dynamic group of lightweight women that we have,” Jones said. “And then, when we had our final selections for the lightweight double, I had a really great result and I’m feeling back to my normal self and my normal speed, and it was great to be able to perform well on a day that really mattered and be selected into the lightweight double this year with [Sechser].” Jacobs was impressed by how well the veteran rowers handled the change from a trials boat to a camp boat.
“The way they opened up to this new system and how professionally they work together—it’s not easy,” she said. “You’re fatigued, you’re in competition with each other, but you also have to work together, which is a difficult balance sometimes. They handled that really well.”
Despite the accommodations athletes must make to compete for a camp boat, there are numerous benefits: more resources and financial support from USRowing, relief from the responsibility of having to find their own rowing coaches, weightlifting coaches, physical therapists, equipment, and everything else necessary to train professionally. Perks like that, Sechser said, helped convince her to stick with it through another Olympic training cycle.
Jones has not gone through as many lightweight-double trials cycles as Sechser but she also pointed to the support from USRowing as one of the main advantages of the change.
“It’s really great to have a high-level group that’s well organized and the leadership from USRowing to keep us on the same page and working together instead of against each other, which has happened sometimes in the past,” Jones said. “I think it’s going to lead to a really great result for the lightweight women.”
For the two younger athletes who did not row at the Division I level—Luwis and Boersen rowed on club teams at the College of William and Mary and Grand Valley State University, respectively—the additional support is novel as well.
Luwis’s dad signed her up for a one-week learn-to-row camp at a Washington, D.C.-area club one summer in high school “and I hated it. I was like, why would anybody want to do a sport where all you do is slide back and forth on your butt,” she recalled with a laugh.
As a self-proclaimed good but not great cross-country runner who was anxious about racing, she wanted to join a sports club at William and Mary where she could stay active but not worry about competing. She ran into a rower at the college’s club fair early in her freshman year and was pleased to learn that the club did not require rowing experience.
“I was like, well, I have one week of experience, so I can do that,” Luwis said. “The big draw was they went off campus, and I didn’t have a car freshman year, so I was like, this could be fun.”
From the beginning, Luwis was one of the fastest rowers on the team, owing to her previous though brief rowing experience and the fitness she developed as a high-school runner.
“I like to be good at things, so I stuck around,” she explained.
She had no idea what the U23 team was or what selection camps entailed until an assistant coach enlightened her, and the summer after her freshman year, she signed up for one. Making a U23 team the following summer soon became her goal, which she achieved in 2019 when she made the U23 lightweight-quad selection camp.
Once Covid began, she lost the remainder of her senior club season at William and Mary, graduated via Zoom in a hotel room, and moved shortly thereafter to Boston to row full-time. After making connections with other rowers in Boston, she moved to Philadelphia to row at Penn AC under coach Sean Hall and later followed him to Whitemarsh Boat Club in Conshohocken, a Philadelphia suburb.
“The advantage [of rowing at the club level] was, because I had no help and everything had to be very self-directed, it set me up really well for what elite rowing in a non-Olympic boat class can be, which has to be very self-directed,” Luwis explained.
Boersen, who began rowing on GVSU’s club team, followed a path similar to that of Luwis. She attended several U23 summer programs at Vesper Boat Club and moved to Washington, D.C., shortly after graduating from college in 2020 to train at the Potomac Boat Club. After several years, she moved to Whitemarsh, where, under Hall, she became Luwis’s training partner.
“Starting at the club level, you don’t have access to a lot of resources,” Boersen said. “While a lot of people see that as detrimental, it makes you more self-sufficient.
“If you come from a Division I program where you have all these resources, you begin to take them for granted,” she continued. “Now, whenever I get access to a PT or a lifting coach, I really appreciate it.”
Although Boersen finished third in the lightweight single at the winter speed order in March in Sarasota and earned an invitation to the lightweight-double selection camp, she won’t compete at the 2023 World Rowing Championships but will travel with Sechser and Jones as an alternate. Boersen had been bowing with Jones during spring and summer training until Jones moved into the double with Sechser.
Jacobs commended the maturity with which Boersen, the youngest member of the four invited to selection camp, handled training with Jones and the other women.
“You’re basically the captain of the boat [in the bow seat] during the race, and she did that so well,” Jacobs said of Boersen’s time with Jones. “It was so cool to see how she took on that role.”
Boersen and Luwis, who made their first Senior National Team in 2022 in the lightweight quad, were unable to compete at the 2022 World Rowing Championships because they were involved in a car crash about a week before on the way to training. Luwis spent 10 days in the ICU with a long list of injuries, including a punctured lung, numerous broken ribs, multiple brain bleeds, a concussion, and more. Boersen was slightly better off but still had injuries that rendered her unable to compete, including a concussion and significant road rash. This year’s world championships will be the first time Boersen and Luwis are traveling as USRowing-funded athletes for an international competition.
Reckford earned a seat in the women’s openweight quad and will be rowing with that crew at worlds but has not made a decision about whether to pursue the lightweight double or openweight quad for the Olympics, a choice she won’t make at the earliest until after the 2023 World Rowing Championships.
Luwis has enjoyed success on the international circuit this summer in the lightweight-women’s single sculls, taking second at World Rowing Cup II and winning at World Rowing Cup III in Lucerne. She had been given the go-ahead by Verdonkschot to race the world cups despite finishing fifth at the winter speed order (and missing out on an invitation to the lightweight-double selection camp by one spot). Jacobs said Luwis has proven herself at the winter speed order and internationally and will have an opportunity to compete for a seat in the lightweight double next year after the world championships and additional training, despite not being invited initially to selection camp.
Luwis has always been something of an underdog in rowing, says current coach Hall.
“When she first came to me, I honestly didn’t think she had it,” he said, “There were some serious technical issues that seemed insurmountable.”
But her work ethic and desire to soak up as much knowledge as possible made it easier to solve some of her technical problems, Hall said, and when she began getting faster, it happened almost overnight.
“That’s the kind of thing coaches really like to see,” Hall said. “We don’t like to see slow improvement over time.
“On top of that, she seems to have a natural feel or understanding of the impulse and stroke, particularly the one that I coach and the one that I really like, so that’s a natural fit for us,” he continued. Luwis will train with Hall for the time being, and Boersen switched back recently to training with Luwis under Hall after her training under USRowing.
While there will be several more intra-group races before Olympic selection, Jacobs emphasized the importance of limiting such racing so the athletes don’t burn out before the Olympics and other international competition. Now that the world-championship lightweight-double lineup has been decided, the athletes will race at worlds and return to the U.S. for more training, but there won’t be more racing until 2024, when Verdonkschot will evaluate the rowers’ fitness and development and make a final decision on the Olympic boat.
“We should always keep the bigger goal in the picture,” Jacobs explained. “We have to make the right decision, but we cannot endlessly re-race because then we burn out our athletes before they get to compete against the rest of the world.”
The five athletes embrace that philosophy: They’re focused on the racing and training ahead while keeping in mind the ultimate goal—the Olympics.
Reckford, who also contemplated retiring after this year’s Olympic cycle (since this may be the final time the women’s lightweight double is an Olympic event), said her focus is “a really memorable race” with the open-weight quad at the world championships and training with the intention of “pushing the limits of what I can do and what I can achieve this year, just really have a year with no regrets, no if-onlys.”
Those intentions, of course, come with the overarching goal of making the Olympic team and qualifying whichever boat she chooses to row for the 2024 Games. She’s reconsidering quitting after Paris now that she’s proven she can earn a spot in an open-weight boat, but she won’t make a decision until 2025.
Sechser, who seemed to have the toughest time adjusting to a camp boat, is concentrating on individual pursuits and her personal attitude as moving from a trials boat to a camp boat entails shifting from “we” to “me.” She intends to PR on both her 6K and 2K and believes achieving such “checkpoints” will “build toward a culmination of racing in the final round of selection camp.”
Crucial to Sechser’s adjusting to a camp boat has been reminding herself that a good sculler can make any boat go fast—“putting myself in a headspace where I know that good scullers can match anyone, and trusting my experience that I’ve hopped in a double” and still found success racing. Regardless of her partner, she hopes to step onto the podium at the world championships and eventually the Olympics.
In late July, Luwis raced in the women’s lightweight single at the senior national team trials and won by more than seven seconds—with Boersen coming in second—and earned a spot in that boat class at the world championships. The Olympics, of course, are her overarching ambition. Because she wasn’t invited originally to the lightweight-double selection camp, she spent most of the summer racing in Europe, competing in four regattas in the lightweight single in five weeks.
All the racing Luwis has been doing in the single is aimed at one thing: giving her the best shot of being selected for the women’s lightweight double next year.
“I want to see her in the double,” Hall said. “She’s absolutely capable, and we’re spending this year positioning her to be an unequivocal contender.”
Boersen, who’s training again with Luwis, knows she’s at a disadvantage with respect to Sechser and Jones because of her youth and relative lack of racing experience—something she’s intent on gaining, especially at the international level.
“It’s so much more than actual fitness; a lot of mental things go into it,” Boersen said.
Jones has her sights set on making her first Olympic team, a goal she moved closer to by unseating Reckford and earning her spot with Sechser in the women’s lightweight double at worlds.
“This will be my first world championships in the lightweight double since 2018, so I’m looking forward to me and [Sechser] having a really great regatta and seeing how fast we can go in this new combination,” Jones said. (Jones and Sechser trained together briefly in 2015 and 2016 at Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia, but the duo do not have substantial racing experience together.)
Although the Olympic lineup will not be announced until next year, Jacobs has confidence in all the women who may be selected ultimately and said the women’s lightweight double is one of the United States’ most promising crews for an Olympic medal.
“It’s a hyper-competitive field, but the group of lightweight women here is very capable of competing with the rest of the world.”