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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2007

St. Ursula academy s varsity-eight members head for london for a regatta

The St. Ursula Academy crew practices on the Maumee River as they prepare to compete Saturday in the Henley Women s Regatta on the River Thames in England.
The St. Ursula Academy crew practices on the Maumee River as they prepare to compete Saturday in the Henley Women s Regatta on the River Thames in England.
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Amazons they re not.

To be sure, at this week s Henley Women s Regatta in England, the Toledo crew will compete against plenty of rowers who are taller and broader-shouldered.

But it s a good bet the nine members and three alternates of the St. Ursula Academy s varsityeight rowing team that heads for London Tuesday have more brain power than the competition. They have a combined GPA of 4.26, the valedictorian and salutatorian, and eight National Honor Society inductees.

We re not very strong or big compared to other teams, so we have to rely heavily on technique, says Kate Broderick, one of five graduated seniors in the boat.

That means synchronistic rowing, and sliding forward and back in their movable seats at the exact same moment, skills honed during thousands of miles on the water and countless drills, with intense focus and a strong boat leader called a coxswain (pronounced koksin ). There s scant room for ego on these skinny 60-foot-long shells.

They have, their coach says, a lot of heart.

St. Ursula rower Anissa Bereksi holds the boathouse door open after practice on the Maumee River.
St. Ursula rower Anissa Bereksi holds the boathouse door open after practice on the Maumee River.
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This boat has had the same athletes for an unusually long two and a half years, and working so closely together has not only forged them into a family on land, but has paid off on water.

In 2006, they were the first Toledo varsity boat to bring home a gold medal from the Midwest Scholastic Rowing Championships. And at the highly competitive Head of the Charles contest in Boston, they placed second.

It involves a lot more than just strength and skill. You have to be mentally there, says rower Lauren Sheehan, a rising senior.

But this little engine that could is coming off a devastating defeat that left the girls badly shaken. It happened June 2 at the semifinals of the National Scholastic Rowing Championship in Camden, N.J. Nobody can pinpoint what went wrong.

Our mental game was not there.

We psyched ourselves out.

We had high expectations, a lot of pressure, were among their stabs at explanation.

Rowers return to the dock. Rowers return to the dock.
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About 250 teenagers, a mix of girls and boys, row out of the big boathouse in International Park. It s both a spring and fall sport, with conditioning beginning in January and on-water drills in March. Fall season runs from August through at least October.

In the last couple of weeks, they ve yawned their way into the boathouse five days a week at 7 a.m., clad in shorts and sweatshirts, ponytails, flip-flops, and painted toenails. A mark of their motivation: parents don t have to harp on them to go.

Coxswain Alex Thornton, senior class president, sets about collecting gear and orchestrating transport of the 200-pound boat.

They carry it over their heads to the dock and set it into the calm lagoon.

To warm up, they ll pull their way up the Maumee River a couple of miles, then do drills, practicing starts, timing, rowing hard, and the all-important final 40 strokes of a race.

Wearing a headset microphone (there are two speakers on the boat), the petite Ms. Thornton (5 feet, 3 inches tall and 115 pounds), is the on-board coach, tracking strokes per minute (42 for starts, 32 for the body of the race).

She steers, tells rowers to correct their technique, and perhaps most importantly, motivates.

Coach Neil McElroy, who was coxswain at St. John s Jesuit High School in the early 1990s, compares the job to auto racing.

She s the driver and the pit boss and the crew chief. And the eight of them [the rowers] are eight cylinders.

He follows the nautical needle in his motorized launch, zooming alongside to check for aberrations and call out drills.

The nice thing about these girls is they ve been at this long enough, I don t have to shout very much, says Mr. McElroy, who works as a criminal defense attorney.

I started helping my dad coach when I was a senior in high school at St. John s, he says.

He continued coaching with his father, Rod McElroy, while attending law school at the University of Toledo, and afterward. Three years ago, he was hired at St. Ursula.

And yes it s different, he says about coaching girls and boys. I think Mia Hamm said it best: Coach us like we re men but treat us like ladies.

This is, he says, the most remarkable boat he s coached.

I was hesitant to leave St. John s and to leave my father s side as well, he says. But the dedication and work ethic of the girls that have been with me from the start has just astounded me.

Mr. McElroy s father rowed in the prestigious Royal Henley Regatta in 1958 with Harvard University s lightweight-eight boat, and they won their category.

Last fall, he suggested that they consider entering the Henley Women s Regatta, to which parents and girls agreed. They applied to the event and were accepted, based on their record. Expenses for the students, including three alternates: nearly $36,000. Boat rental alone is $3,000.

Fifteen parents, siblings, and grandparents will accompany them, and they ll return June 28. Saturday s 1,500-meter (just shy of a mile) race on the River Thames will take five minutes and is one-on-one single-elimination, meaning if they win, they progress to the next level; if they lose, they re done. They re well aware that the next race could be their last. But their sights are set on grabbing the Peabody Cup, the award for their category.

And their recent loss?

They plan to turn it on its head.

We re using it as fuel, says one rower, speaking for all. We can t dwell on it.

Contact Tahree Lane at:

tlane@theblade.com

or 419-724-6075.



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