SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – For most local student-athletes the fall season got underway before the first day of school, there were tryouts, scrimmages and by this past weekend, almost one-half of the fall season was over.
For Capital Region rowers and the more than 200 competitors for the Saratoga Rowing Association the annual Tail of the Fish regatta was a welcome relief, finally racing against the clock and other crew teams in their first official contest of the year.
Saturday afternoon gave some of the youngest rowers a chance to pull on an oar against the clock and other teams in a time trial format. For the varsity entries it was time to put their work to the test with some official race times.
Experienced athletes look forward to a new season, its fresh start and a chance to show off their new levels of talent, both as underclassmen and upperclassmen as well.
SRA boys modified eighth-grade coach Kristi Wagner saw the improvement in this year’s squad that grew, in every sense of the word, from their work last year as seventh-grade novices.
“They may be a little bit taller, learning how they maneuver their bodies and maybe they have a little bit more control over their bodies than they did in seventh-grade so we see how do they adjust,” Kristi Wagner said. “You’re expecting a little bit more from them than maybe was expected last year.
“We've been working on a lot of technical stuff and there is some fitness stuff there too, longer erg (ergometer or rowing machine) pieces or runs.”
But the SRA Arion elite rower and coach understands that she is still dealing with the mind and emotions of eighth-grade boys anticipating their first race of this fall.
“I think it's a little bit all over the place, but I thought today they actually did a good job containing it,” Wagner said. “I was pleasantly surprised with how seriously they took everything.
“They work hard and I think they know there aren't too many races so they want to put their best foot forward for the opportunities that they have.”
There are still some challenges when they are on their way to the start of the 2,200-meter course that begins above the Stafford Bridge and finishes prior to the Route 9P Bridge. This is the first time this fall they are on their own, without the guidance of Wagner or the other SRA coaches floating alongside in a launch (motorboat) giving instructions.
“Listening to the coxswain, they all want to be in charge and then I think another big challenge is if something happens if they catch a 'crab' (oar stuck in the water during a stroke) or something, being able to recover from it and not let it have a huge impact.”
Like letting go of a youngster’s bike when they are learning to ride, seeing them off from the SRA dock and heading to the start comes with its own set emotions for the modified coach.
“It's a little scary,” Wagner said. “There are a lot of safety launches on the course, so they are safe and I have faith in them. They all know what to do and if something happened hopefully they're prepared.”
The modified crews will have their first road trip next Sunday at the Mohawk Fall Challenge in Glenville before regrouping for the fall modified championships while the varsity rowers have a full schedule for the next four weekends.
Saturday’s regatta was as close to a friendly scrimmage as the SRA varsity rowers can manage and they looked to take advantage of it.
“We're definitely excited to get into the competitive part of the season,” SRA girls varsity Coach Eric Gehrke said. “It's great to be part of a program like this where they compete against each other so often in practice, it's a high level of competition, a high level of drive, everybody is fighting in a positive way for the seat that they want.
“We're O.K. going through the early season because they are getting a lot of competitive practice inner squad, but we're excited to see the other teams this weekend.”
The SRA varsity girls have been on the water for more than a month and Saturday’s regatta was just one more step in their process of creating a championship-quality boat.
“We trusted one another, went after it and kept thinking about our final goal,” Saratoga Rowing senior Maecy Rickman said. “We approached today's race as just another practice and our final goal is the Head of the Charles, just taking it one race at a time, trying to build up for the Charles.”
Rickman and her girls varsity eight had no trouble covering the 2,200-meter course in 12 minutes, 11.48 seconds Saturday morning and a first-place finish.
“We felt a lot of confidence through the boat as the piece went on and everyone stayed calm throughout the whole piece and once we finished everyone knew that everyone pushed their hardest,” Rickman said.
Gehrke has spent half of his coaching career coaching both men’s and women’s squads, recognizing the differences in what drives the different teams.
“The women love the process of it, they want to learn, they want to get technically better. They're very concerned about their technical changes,” Gehrke said. “The guys were competitively driven, the process was maybe not what engages them, but sitting next to another boat and going guts out against them was what they were excited about.”
While the fall is a chance to continue to hone their skills, for Rickman there are other ways to make her boat better.
“One major thing is just trying to be the best role model for the underclassmen and leaving Saratoga knowing that it's in good hands,” Rickman said.
That also includes instilling a top-level work ethic to the underclassmen on and off the water
“Approach every practice as if it is your last, treat the boathouse with respect, treat your teammates with respect, every piece you put out make sure that it's aggressive,” Rickman said. “Our biggest thing is 'grit,' make sure we're being gritty throughout everything that we do. Be competitive with a healthy relationship with your teammates and be competitive as much as you can.”
The SRA varsity boats will also race at the Mohawk Fall Classic before heading to Connecticut for the Head of the Housatonic and looking to make waves at the prestigious Head of the Charles regatta in Boston Oct. 19 and 20. The locals will return home for bragging rights and a chance at hoisting the most unique trophy in sports – a painted, lacquered and mounted fish head, the spoils of racing for the top boat at the annual Head of the Fish regatta Oct. 26 and 27.