South Charlotte

These rowers aren't out for just a Sunday cruise

Sarah Cavins, a senior at South Mecklenburg High, spent a couple hours on a hot and sunny day last week on a boat coasting across Lake Wylie in south Charlotte.

Sounds like a nice, relaxing way to spend a spring day, right?

"Yeah, good one," said Cavins.

However, Cavins wasn't relaxing; she was training.

Cavins and seven other south Charlotte high schoolers at Charlotte Youth Rowing were on the water practicing last week after qualifying for the USRowing Youth National Championships on June 10-12 in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The club qualified one girls' and one boys' quad sculling boat - a four-person boat with each person rowing two oars and no coxswain. This is the fifth straight year the rowing club has qualified at least one boat for nationals, the longest such streak in North and South Carolina and Virginia, according to coach Byron "Doc" Walthall.

"It's the most exciting season," said Monique Tuzon, a junior at Providence High. "We've worked so hard."

Tuzon, Cavins, Providence High senior Sarah Fewell and Myers Park senior Rebecca Stojancic finished third in the Southeast Regional Championships in Georgia on May 15 to qualify for nationals.

"When we finished our race at regionals, that's the happiest I've been in a boat before," said Stojancic.

Ardrey Kell junior Hamilton Smith, Charlotte Latin senior Andrew Taylor and Myers Park junior Evan Long and sophomore Wilson Sink also finished third at the regional to qualify for the national regatta. For everyone but Fewell, it's their first time at nationals.

Despite the club's recent success, many in south Charlotte don't even know there's a rowing team.

"People ask me what I'm doing after school and I'm like, 'Oh, I have crew practice,' and they're like, 'Crew? Where do you do that?'" said Taylor. "Most people have no idea that there's even a club team out here."

The Charlotte Youth Rowing team started in 2000 as a part of the Catawba Yacht Club on Lake Wylie. That first year it was an all-girls team with about 14 members. Since then, the club, sponsored by the Siskey YMCA, has grown to a mixed group of about 50. Rowers pay about $225 to participate.

Coaches Walthall and his wife, Nancy Teaff, both physicians, got involved when their daughters, Mary Cait and Julia, joined the club the year it started. Teaff rowed in college at Smith College (Mass.) and convinced the rest of the family to try it at a camp in 1997. When Mary Cait, then 12, won a race at the end of the camp, they decided to get more involved.

Walthall helped the original coach, John Zinkievich, run practice. But when Zinkievich left after three years, Walthall and Teaff stepped in.

"I wasn't going to let the program fold," said Walthall.

Walthall and Teaff - assisted in the club by Kevin List, Beverly Newell and Laura Bosco - still row in an adult club and attend coaching clinics through the year.

The club takes mostly high school rowers but will make exceptions for eighth-graders who have experience or have a sibling on the team. But finding members with previous experience is not common.

"If we're lucky we have one (new rower with experience). That's a pretty good year," said Walthall, but "in just a few weeks, they're rowing pretty well."

Many of the rowers come to rowing after getting burnt out on other sports: Taylor broke his arm playing football and wanted to try another sport. Sink stopped playing football in middle school and joined rowing, and Long played baseball for 10 years before he decided to try something new. Tuzon played basketball growing up, and Stojancic played lacrosse.

"I really enjoy it because it's like a full-body workout," said Taylor. "It's not only physical strength and endurance, but it's also mental strength, because if you don't have the mindset and you don't have the drive, you're never going to do well."

Rowing takes constant focus, with rowers having to make sure they stay in a rhythm and keep the boat - which has a rounded bottom and isn't naturally balanced - steady on the water.

"It's like running a three-legged race with four people at top speed," said Walthall. "You really have to know what you're doing."

"It challenges every part of your body in a way it hasn't been tested before," added Sink.

In spring, rowers compete in two-kilometer races. The boys said they push their bodies so hard in the race that they usually throw up.

"I have yet not to throw up after a 2K race," said Sink.

The endurance and work it takes to compete in the sport is what draws rowers to it.

"I wouldn't think of quitting because of that," said Taylor. "It's that extra drive that separates us from other athletes."

Walthall said the key to having a successful boat is part physical stature ("You can't teach height.") and part attitude. A good rower with a bad attitude is his worst nightmare, he said. Each team also has a different character and needs a different style of coaching.

"It's amazing how much headwork you have to do with this sport," Walthall said, "and I like that."

Many of the rowers are going on to row in college. Jackson Hoynacki became the club's first recruited and scholarship-winning male athlete when he started at the University of California at Berkeley this year. Walthall said Smith was very recruitable and the three senior girl rowers will compete for club teams in college: Cavins at Tennessee, Stojancic at N.C. State and Fewell at Sewanee.

At practice last week, Walthall, with his big red megaphone beside him on the pontoon boat, watched the girls' boat gliding through the water, rowing in perfect precision. He thinks back to what drew him to rowing in the first place. For years he competed in triathlons until he hurt his knee.

Rowing filled the void nicely, he said: It had the technique of swimming, the total-body workout of running and required the same amount of equipment as cycling.

"For the triathlete in recovery, it's a pretty good sport," he said.