Rowers Mia Barkenbush and Sara Hansen at Mercer Lake in Mercer County Park. (Photo by Helene Hasselbach-Gallagher.)

Mia Barkenbush and Sara Hansen are trying to enjoy each day at High South, but it’s hard for them not to think ahead.

The two seniors have big plans to medal at the USRowing Youth National Championships and beyond that to compete in college. Neither goal could have happened without finding the Princeton National Rowing Association’s Mercer Junior Rowing Program.

“When I first started, I had no idea where it would take me,” Barkenbush said. “It was a leap of faith thing and I had a good feeling about trying it. I just decided I was going to go for it, and go all in, and give it everything that I had.”

Barkenbush heard about the Mercer rowing program from Hansen, who took up rowing for Mercer in eighth grade. Barkenbush joined her in ninth grade, and the two have been together in Mercer’s first varsity women’s boat since they were sophomores.

“I was a gymnast all through elementary and middle school,” Hansen said. “I quit and I was in a rut and didn’t know what to do. I was signed up for a summer camp for rowing, and it kind of just clicked. I started the fall of eighth grade. I have done it ever since.”

Five years later, Hansen has plans to continue her rowing career at the University of Miami, where she will major in biology. She signed a National Letter of Intent on Nov. 9.

“I think I knew pretty early on that it was something I wanted to do in college,” Hansen said. “Rowing is one of those sports where it’s so hard that unless you put everything into it, you’re not going to do well. As soon as I started doing varsity and seeing results, I knew I wanted to continue that for as long as possible.”

Barkenbush is going to continue her rowing career at the University of Pennsylvania, where she plans to study biochemistry. She looks back fondly on her decision to get into rowing.

“Prior to rowing, I played field hockey and lacrosse,” Barkenbush said. “My hand-eye coordination, aim, it just wasn’t there. People would say, why don’t you use the strength, the endurance and the speed for another sport, but you don’t have to throw anything anywhere or hit something.”

She ended up giving rowing a shot and it working out well. “I really enjoyed the team aspect of it, the coaching staff that they have at Mercer, and everything about the sport is something that appeals to me.”

Now, four and five years of rowing for Mercer have positioned them as veterans who serve as examples of where hard work can take an athletic girl looking for a new sport.

“To be honest, it’s a little strange finally being in the last year after being a part of the team for so long,” Hansen said. “It’s really exciting to be part of a boat that can do so well in my final year. You want it to end as best as possible and I feel like the group of girls that we are, we really have that shot.”

‘I’ve come to be a much more hard working and committed person and athlete because of the environment I’ve trained in.’

The intense intra-team competition has made Mercer competitive on the national level, and it has helped to shape each rower into a more developed racer.

“Being with a lot of fast and talented girls, it’s certainly tougher competition-wise to make the top boat and stay in the top boat,” Barkenbush said.

“Having great girls on either side of you in a workout, it pushes you to be a better version of yourself,” she said.

Last year, Barkenbush and Hansen were in the Mercer first varsity boat that won the petite final at nationals, equivalent to placing seventh overall. They have returned with an even more promising start to this year. The first varsity of Emmanuelle Adamson, Elyssa Aronson, Barkenbush, Sarah Closser, Hansen, coxswain Lauren Preston, Katryna Niva, Bridget Parker and Kieran Wild placed fifth out of 85 boats in their division to earn a medal at the Head of the Charles in late October. Last year, they were 13th in the same race.

“We’re a lot faster as a boat this year than we were last year at the same time,” Hansen said. “It makes us really excited about what we can achieve, not only this winter but this spring. Hopefully we’ll end up at least top three at nationals.”

The Head of the Charles is the largest two-day regatta in the world. Mercer not only had its top women’s boat finish with a medal, but its second varsity of Jacqueline Armetta, Julia Berdzik, Chloe Couillens, Sophia Craver, Erin Dobbs, Eveline Enthoven, Morgan Linsley, Peri Mishkin and coxswain Madeleine Peel was a promising 13th overall.

“I think it’s a lot more competitive than last year,” said women’s coach Matt Carlsen of the Mercer program. “I think some of the younger girls are starting to realize their potential very, very soon, earlier than girls last year.”

Hansen recalls being a younger rower and having to prove herself. She put her mind to improving and becoming a college recruit.

“I remember in eighth grade, I wasn’t even asked to do winter training with the varsity,” Hansen said. “I had to email my coach and tell them I thought I deserved it. I had to show I did deserve it. Being my size in rowing—I’m not very big—I worked a lot outside of rowing and made sure I was putting my best foot forward. Spending 25 hours a week on a sport, it starts to pay off eventually.”

Barkenbush has found herself more drawn to the sport with each year. She has taken on more responsibility as she has developed into a stronger rower.

“I’m excited for what’s going to happen going forward and going to college, but this year is also a great opportunity to step up as a leader on the team and to help other girls find what I’ve been able to find in myself and in rowing,” Barkenbush said. “You always look up to the girls before you and see the amazing things they’re doing and hope that one day you can lead in the way that they do.”

Hansen and Barkenbush have been solid examples, like their predecessors. They have provided the Mercer program strong leadership through the fall.

“I think it’s super helpful,” Carlsen said. “They have the experience of going to the big name regattas. They can help guide the younger girls with the nerves or whatever they’re feeling. Whether it’s the Head of the Charles, nationals, Cincinnati, they’ve been around the block a time or two which is very, very helpful.”

Barkenbush added to her experience when she spent the summer training in a new venue—Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia. In previous summers, she rowed for her home club.

This year she was able to participate in events that she hasn’t in the past in order to diversify her rowing. “It was great to be able to be rowing somewhere else and doing some positions and events that I don’t normally do. It helped me improve my skills in general.”

Hansen also continued to train over the summer, and this fall she followed her passion in her college search. She took official visits before selecting Miami.

“I was looking at Miami and three other schools,” Hansen said. “It really came down to where I felt I could do my best work. The environment at the school in terms of academic and student life is something I enjoyed learning about when I was there on my official visit.”

“I met girls on the team that I seemed to connect really well with, more than the other schools I visited,” she added. “The coaches in general are great. It’s a team that’s been doing better in the last couple years. They keep growing. I’d like to be a part of a team that’s getting better and working harder every year.”

A capital campaign is underway to raise $7.5 million to expand the Caspersen Rowing Center on Mercer Lake in West Windsor to increase indoor workout area, locker rooms and sports medicine facilities as well as add storage and meeting space. It is due to be completed by mid-2019.

“I am a little jealous that I might not get to use the new Mercer tanks, and have a locker room and all that stuff,” Hansen said. “It’s nice to also be able to say I was a part of the old Mercer, and I helped make it possible for things to grow out of it. I know when I started, there was definitely no talk of a fundraiser or expansion.”

Barkenbush and Hansen credit the Mercer program with playing an important role in their lives. They found not just a sport, but a lifestyle in rowing and a bright future.

“I went into it with no expectations, but full force and energy and dedication,” Barkenbush said. “As I’ve gone on, the ultimate goal is to do this at a higher level, and one day you can compete at NCAAs. I’ve been able to do this very competitively in high school, and I want to move on with that in college and be able to kick it up another notch.”

Hansen said that Mercer has been like a home away from home. “I’ve been there every day. Some of my best friends are from there. It’s weird to think about leaving a place that you’ve been a part of for such a long time… I’ve come to be a much more hard working and committed person and athlete because of the environment I’ve trained in.”