Caroline Galati didn’t panic when the Princeton National Rowing Association’s Mercer Rowing Club started slowly at the USRowing Youth National Championships.
Galati, a graduated senior at WW-P High School South, had seen her women’s youth eight with coxswain do it all year. They started the season slowly without even making the top 10 at the Head of the Charles in their first major race of the year. PNRA/Mercer became notoriously slow starters in races, but just as regularly they would rally, and they did it again at nationals for their most dramatic race win on the biggest stage at nationals in Saratoga, Fla.
“We actually started dead last,” said Galati, the coxswain in charge of keeping the boat rowing together on course and adjusting the stroke rate as necessary.
The rowers were in last place until about the 750-meter point (races are typically 2K). From there, they slowly worked their way up, but were still very far behind with only about 500 meters to go. At that point, Galati called early for them to sprint to the finish.
“I kept telling them, ‘This is our race, we’ve been working for this, let it rip,’” she said.
“We came together and drove it down. You could feel everyone trusting each other. We just walked through so quickly. It was awesome.”
PNRA/Mercer edged Nashville, Tenn., to win the petite final in 6:34.78. The grand final pits the six fastest boats from the semifinals, while the petite final features the next six fastest boats.
Going into the event, the team wanted to make the grand final, said Sara Hansen, a rising senior at South.
“We had hopes of doing better than the petite final,” she said. “When we were at the line we really wanted to take care of that race. Getting away with the win, even though it wasn’t the grand final, it still kind of felt like a win.”
PNRA/Mercer draws from more than 25 Mercer County area high schools, but three of the nine members of the club’s top finishing boat at nationals were from South.
“There were only a couple boats from the A and B finals that we hadn’t raced against, mostly from the Midwest,” said Mia Barkenbush, a rising senior at South. “For the most part we had seen a lot of the crews. It was interesting to see how we progressed.”
Barkenbush and Hansen will be back for Mercer next season, and more motivated than ever. They are some of the returning rowers that Matthew Carlsen, who just finished his first year coaching PNRA/Mercer, is counting on next year.
“Mia and Sara are very, very strong,” Carlsen said. “They’re go-getters and do everything I ask of them and go above and beyond, so I’m excited to see how they perform next year.”
Hansen started rowing with PNRA/Mercer when she was in eighth grade at Grover Middle School.
Barkenbush joined the next year, the same year that Galati also took up rowing. The coaches thought Galati was small to be a rower, but saw her as being an ideal coxswain.
Galati will be attending college at Tyler Arts School at Temple University this fall.
“Every single person in that boat put a lot of hard work in both the offseason and the spring,” Hansen said. “We were really open to the new coaching that Matt was trying to instill in us.”
Barkenbush said that having a new coach made this year more a rebuilding year. “We were trying to figure out, because we had a lot of new girls, how everyone fit together, and our new coach was figuring out how all of us would work together well.”
With Carlsen came a new training program to adjust to, and the rowers had to adapt to his style. He pushed the competitiveness of the boat, making every seat race and erg score important if a rower wanted a seat in the top boat.
“We did a lot more volume,” Barkenbush said. “It was definitely more challenging this year, but it helped us not only to do well this year, but it gave us the ultimate goal of getting stronger later in the season.”
PNRA/Mercer finished its final race together well. It was the perfect time for them to pull out a strong sprint.
“The body of the race has been their M.O.,” Carlsen said. “The sprint has never been that great. Somehow they were able to figure it out and beat Nashville.”
The boat credited its conditioning for its ability to persevere at any point in their races. Doing it repeatedly built the boat’s confidence.
“Some other crews are fast off the line, but we’re really good with our fitness,” Galati said. “Even when we’re down we’re able to shift up into that second gear for the rest of the race, and we’re able to walk through people as they’re getting tired.”
PNRA/Mercer saw it time and again, and now they head into the summer on the strength of the petite final win. The returning rowers will be attending various camps and opportunities.
Barkenbush will be rowing for Philadelphia-based Vespers at club nationals and the Canadian Henley Regatta.
“It’ll be interesting to have a boat where the majority of girls have already rowed together throughout the year and been getting stronger together,” Barkenbush said. “That’ll be very helpful going into next year.”
Said Hansen: “Hopefully we’ll come back in the fall even stronger than we were in the spring and hopefully we can put a better foot forward early in the season.”
“This year, we all trusted each other and it showed,” Galati said. “That’s an important thing with rowing. It’s not just about individuals. It’s about everyone pulling together to become one boat, and you’re pulling not just for yourself but for everyone else in the boat.”