During the summer after her eighth-grade year at Pond Road Middle School, Sydney Holgado’s mother, Leilani, decided to register her daughter for a beginner’s rowing camp. But Leilani got a little mixed up with her Princetons.
So, instead of Holgado participating in the Princeton National Rowing Association’s Mercer Rowing Club program, she attended the much-higher caliber Princeton University Elite camp.
That’s a bit like signing someone up for Little League, only to send them to a Yankees tryout.
“It’s a funny story, actually,” Holgado said. “A few of my friends signed up to do a beginner rowing camp at PNRA, and I wanted to try it too. But my mom accidentally signed me up for the Princeton University camp. So there I was, knowing nothing about the sport, thrown into a boat with elite athletes and being coached by former Olympian Steve Coppola. It was one of the most mentally challenging weeks of my life.”
It also became one of the most significant weeks in her life, as it worked out better than anyone could have imagined. During her highly intense first week of crew, Holgado fell in love with the sport and joined PNRA/Mercer the fall of her freshman year at Robbinsville High. Over the past four years, she has served as coxswain for boats that have won gold medals in regional, national and international championships.
“And, funny enough,” she said, “I’m now an assistant coach at the PNRA camp that I was originally supposed to attend four years ago.”
The recent RHS graduate is also going to one of the most illustrious rowing colleges in the nation, as she will join the NCAA Division I National Champion University of California at Berkley in the fall.
If rowing for Princeton’s Elite Club is comparable to the Yankees, going to Cal for crew is equivalent to entering Alabama for football. It was a three-year process for Holgado, who occupies the boat’s most important position as coxswain.
Holgado and Leilani began researching colleges during her sophomore year to see if there was any hope of being recruited. This wasn’t just an Internet search, but a full-fledged scouting mission.
“I talked to many coaches, including the Cal coaches, and visited many universities over the following few years,” Holgado said.
This past year, she took several official recruiting visits and when it came time to apply, Holgado leaned toward academics over crew. Cal happens to be outstanding in both.
“I applied to UC Berkeley thinking it was a long shot, not getting my hopes up,” she said. “I was ecstatic to receive an email early this spring with my acceptance letter. As the first Robbinsville student to be accepted to Berkeley, it’s such an honor to have the opportunity to attend what is ranked as the No. 1 public university in the world. And although I was admitted based on academics, I am proud to say that I have since joined the women’s crew recruiting class of 2020.”
Holgado is taking a break from competitive rowing this summer in preparation for college, and will leave on Aug. 19 for Cal. She has remained involved in the sport by coaching PNRA Novice camps and teaching future generations of Mercer rowers.
According to Mia Barkenbush, a rising junior at West Windsor-Plainsboro South who is on the Mercer Rowing Varsity 8 with coxswain boat, those rowing hopefuls are in good hands.
“I’ve known Sydney since I moved up to the varsity program last year,” said Barkenbush, a standout rower in her own right. “She was always a leader on the team and looked to help out younger team members, especially other coxswains who could learn a lot from her.”
The coxswain serves as the boat’s quarterback, as she is in charge of steering, commands, motivation and overall safety of the boat. She is the lone person facing forward during a race, so she can constantly tell the crew where they are on the racecourse, how they compare to the competition, and the stroke rate (the amount of strokes taken per minute).
“Essentially, the coxswain is the brains of the operation while the rowers bring the power,” Holgado said. “I’m expected to have every detail figured out and steer the shortest and straightest course possible, so all the rowers should have to worry about is pulling hard and staying together.”
Once again, Barkenbush feels Holgado is the right girl for the job.
“Sydney is a great coxswain, because she is very organized and on top of things,” Barkenbush said. “She also knows how to push her rowers to perform their best. I was with Sydney for some of my first races on varsity, and she helped to make them an amazing experience.”
Being a coxswain is something that Holgado thrives upon. It is her instruction that keeps everything together, which she feels is the most enjoyable aspect of rowing. She also likes that she doesn’t have to be over 6-feet to do it.
“It is the ultimate team sport,” she said. “Rowers in a boat need to be exactly in sync with each other to move forward efficiently, and that requires a unique bond and discipline that I don’t really see in other sports. On top of that, rowing is a sport that I can participate in with my height, or lack thereof, becoming a disadvantage.”
Sydney spent her final summer of competitive high school rowing with Mercer, and in her final event she coxed the lightweight girls 4-plus coxswain to an eighth-place finish in the USRowing Youth National Championships on Mercer Lake, June 10-11. The boat also included senior Elise Gorberg (WW-P North), junior Celia Varga (Princeton Day School), senior Eileen Hu (WW-P South) and junior Sheila Kennedy-Moore (Princeton).
“Our training going into Nationals was as hectic as it could have been,” Holgado said. “Coming out of the regional qualifier, our team could either race in the Lightweight four-plus category, or the Lightweight eight-plus category, which would have twice the athletes. It wasn’t until three weeks before Nationals that it was decided we’d race in the four.
“We knew that we were at a disadvantage going against the crews that had trained together all season. That being said, from the start I saw potential in the boat. This group of girls, specifically, have always been great at adapting to change and quickly making good corrections to their technique. Still, we didn’t know going in exactly how we’d stack up against the competition.”
Mercer finished in the top three in its first heat to reach the semifinals, but finished fourth in the semis. That meant it had to compete in the B Final, where it finished second (and eighth overall).
“It feels amazing to have ended my high school rowing career in a boat that was Top 10 in the country,” Holgado said. “I had the most incredible, hardworking boat mates, and seeing that hard work pay off on the national level was the most meaningful part of the experience.”
It’s an experience that she will now take to the next level, some 3,000 miles across the country. And just maybe, her mom did not make a mistake four years ago.
Maybe Leilani knew something all along.
For more Robbinsville community news and updates, follow the Robbinsville Advance on Facebook!