WILMINGTON — Crew, although not well-known on the Delaware high school scene, is gaining in popularity nationwide and might be the fastest-growing athletic college scholarship opportunity for girls. Students from at least three Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Wilmington spend their afternoons rowing in Wilmington.
Padua Academy has a group of girls who row with the Newport Rowing Club with students from other schools. Two girls are with the NRC varsity squad and eight are novices. Some 15 students from St. Mark’s High School compete out of the Wilmington Youth Rowing Association, as does a group from Archmere Academy.
Padua’s varsity rowers are sophomore Erica Chandler and junior Elsa Palmisano. Both started rowing before they entered high school and joined Padua’s club when it formed last year. Palmisano fell in love with the sport after a trip to Philadelphia when she was in seventh grade at Ursuline Academy.
“We were driving by Boathouse Row, and my mom showed me the rowers as they were sculling by, and I thought it was really fun so I decided to try it,” she said.
Chandler, who came to Padua from Alfred G. Waters Middle School in Middletown, said she was never a sports person before she started rowing. She loves the rush she gets while on the water.
“The workouts that we have to do are very rigorous and exhausting, but I keep coming back, just for that feel, that one moment when we’re racing and every single person in our boat is together and in sync. We can feel the power of the boat pushing us,” she said.
That exhilarating feeling appeals as well to St. Mark’s junior Carly Alexander, who took up crew as a freshman when she was looking for an alternative to soccer.
“It’s awesome if you have flat water and your oars aren’t dragging, they’re all going in together and coming out together. When you have a good day, it just makes everything worth it,” Alexander said.
Alexander and teammate Taylor Kissinger, also a junior, said St. Mark’s has had crew since 2006. The school has three boats. Alexander said the team aspect cannot be emphasized enough.
“You depend on everybody in that boat. If everyone’s not working hard, you’re not going to make it anywhere. On other teams you can succeed with someone who’s not working as hard, but in this sport, you can’t make it far if you don’t have everyone trying to achieve the best they can do,” said Alexander, who lives in Newark.
Rowers tend to be in top physical condition. Palmisano said the workouts cover every part of the body and, by the end of a race, her legs feel “like jelly.” One exercise, she said, involves sitting in a boat and leaning back almost on top of the person behind them, then holding that position in order to strengthen the abdominal muscles.
Palmisano has noticed a significant change in her condition since she took up the sport.
“I’ve noticed that my physical abilities have definitely risen since seventh grade. I thought it was so easy when I first started, but I had a reality check,” she said.
Crew has given both Padua students the opportunity to travel for competition. The Padua club members have bused to Tennessee for the Head of the Hooch regatta. It was “a good bonding experience,” according to Chandler. Palmisano has been to Boston three times for the Head of the Charles. Chandler knows there are scholarships available for college crew, and she is leaning toward pursuing the sport at the next level.
That would allow her the opportunity to row in the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia, one of rowing’s premier events for college teams. Chandler also wants to participate in the Dad Vail.
For now, however, they would like to see more of their schoolmates give it a try. Padua has an Austrian exchange student this academic year, and Chandler, her host, recruited her for the team. For the most part, though, most students don’t even seem aware of the club.
“They’re like, ‘So, you go on a canoe, right?’” Palmisano said.
Kissinger, who lives in Bear and attended Immaculate Conception School in Elkton, Md., said the same situation exists at St. Mark’s.
“I think a lot of people don’t know we exist. But we definitely try to make ourselves known. I think people think it’s too hard. They don’t really know what it is,” she said.
In addition to the physical benefits and the thrill of competition, Archmere sophomore Claire Orzel cited the ability to make new friends as one of the pluses of the sport. A novice at WYRA, she rows with students from other schools.
“I love the atmosphere. It’s exciting to be out on the water. I really don’t know how to describe it,” Orzel said.
No matter how long Chandler and Palmisano row competitively, they say they plan on staying with it. It is something people can do their entire lives.
Says Chandler, “I think there’s a place for every kind of rower, whether you’re incredibly competitive or you just want to keep up your exercise and have fun.”