Coach Rachel Freedman (far left) is proud of Christine Wirth, Hunter Gaiotti, Erin Quigley, and Stephanie Johnson - four members of the 2014 novice program who joined the competitive program in 2015.
The big stories that get the most coverage around the Head of the Charles, most often spotlight national team rowers, former Olympians, and talented athletes who are vying to defend a course record or title. Their successes are, to say the least, impressive, and worthy of attention and accolades.
And then there are all the rest. Literally thousands of unheralded rowers who work hard every day at practice who find varying degrees of success at local and regional regattas. And they, just like the Olympians, have been given the opportunity to leave their sweat and tears on the 3-mile Charles River course that people come from around the world to conquer.
Erin Quigley (30) and Christine Wirth (26) took up rowing in 2014, starting with a five-week learn to row program at DC Strokes Rowing Club, and then moving on to a novice program for the remainder of the season. This past Spring, they were both accepted into the Club’s competitive masters program. The learning curve was steep at first, but they flourished as members of the small women’s squad. They participated in regattas throughout the year, rowing in women’s 4s and 8s, and mixed line-ups, earning a few medals along the way. When it came time for the Head of the Charles, these first year rowers earned their seats in a club women’s 8. What a difference 16 months can make in a life!
What motivated you to sign up for a Learn to Row program? QUIGLEY: I came to rowing because I was in the process of overhauling my life, or more specifically, moving my priorities to center around activities that supported my personal values. I had noted strength and persistence as being top values, but didn’t have anything in place that would actively challenge me to grow in those areas. Considering that rowing involved a team that would keep me accountable, beautiful scenery to bring smiles when my muscles cried, and a boat that would remove the option to give up halfway… I decided it may be just the challenge I needed.
WIRTH: I saw DC Strokes at the DC Pride parade sometime in college and when my roommate brought up rowing after graduating, it seemed like a good idea. I had just injured my foot and was in the middle of a four month period when I was doctor advised not to do any marathon training (so, you know, a sport where you press on your feet seemed like an ideal choice).
After LTR, why did you continue rowing? QUIGLEY: I continued into the novice and comp programs because I had found that I liked my life better when rowing was in it. My goal had been to find a new strength in myself, and that came tenfold. My body had become useful, rather than just a vessel to exist in. I had conquered so many challenges, races, and workouts that I thought I were impossible. Rowing played a leading role in the fact that I now stood taller walking down the street. Not continuing with rowing was never an option!
WIRTH: Rowing seemed like a really great full body workout and I liked the idea of getting involved with a team and competing. I never really did sports in high school or college, but I was captain of my high school’s academic team – we got onto the all state team and there’s something really special that happens with your overall confidence when you put yourself into a competitive team environment.
How did you feel the first few weeks of the 2015 season, as first year rowers on a competitive program? QUIGLEY: The first few weeks were mentally and emotionally exhausting. I had extreme anxiety over the thought that I did not belong on this team. With a nearly nonexistent athletic background and zero confidence in my ability to be “competitive,” I was sure that I’d be spotted as a phony and kicked out in no time. I gave every ounce of focus and effort I had during practice, which only made the constant correction more crushing. Thank goodness for supportive coaches and other first year rowers to share the experience with, because I certainly couldn’t see at that time how many amazing moments lay ahead in the season.
WIRTH: I thought physically I was pretty close to where a lot of the team was after participating in the team’s winter training, and I think the first few weeks there was a lot of easing in when it came to technique work. That said, over the first couple months, I probably wanted to cry about 20% of the time after we got off the water. It’s incredibly frustrating to feel like the worst rower in the boat, that you can’t get it right, and you’re letting the rest of the team down. The first few weeks of being in a set line up for the women’s 4, I dreaded those practices because of how incredibly stressed I was about it (these eventually became my favorite practices once things started coming together).
What were you thinking about when you were heading down the starting chute in Boston? QUIGLEY: “Let’s do this! This is our time!” were my thoughts when coming down the chute at HOCR. With rapt attention on every inch that our stroke seat rower moved, a smile was plastered on my face. “Look how far I’ve come. Look how far the women of this team have come! We have earned this, and we can do this. Let’s go!”
WIRTH: It was super windy and choppy in the basin, so mostly I was thinking “don’t catch a crab, down and away; don’t catch a crab, down and away.” My usual thought process when I’m rowing is “down and away, controooooool,” so it wasn’t necessarily very different.
The officials also kept having us back off the pressure, which I didn’t appreciate very much. I told myself “Karen (the coxswain) has got this. Eyes forward,” because I have a tendency to let my mind wander to what’s going on around me (and there was an awful lot going on around me). Then she called for pressure, we hit a 30, and the officials said “DC Strokes, you’re on the course.”
What was is like to be on the HOCR course? QUIGLEY: One of the things that I’ve grown to love most about rowing is the unity that is requires. You have to be 100% tuned into the rower in front of you, at the same time, being conscience that your every movement is influencing the string of rowers behind you. This was never more evident then while rowing at HOCR. With so much excitement going on around us, the cheering crowds and near collisions with other boats, we had to drown all of it out and just connect to each other and the water. Coming under the bridges and hearing a single united “clunk… clunk” of the oar locks was an even sweeter sound than that of the fans above us.
WIRTH: That was the most beautiful course I have ever been on. There were a crazy number of spectators on the shores and the bridges. It was also pretty unbelievable to me that I was there rowing. It was a really intense last year and a half and it all seemed to peak at that moment. It was incredibly surreal.
What else about being at HOCR really made an impression on you? QUIGLEY: One unexpected thing that left an impression on me was found in the shopping area. When I came across the Brooks Brothers tent, filled with gorgeous, preppy, high dollar items of all sorts, each emblazoned with a HOCR logo, I finally realized how big this regatta is. I thought, “I’m a part of something so significant that Brooks Brothers, who’s not even a sporting goods company, made an entire line of products for it. Wow!”
WIRTH: It was just so incredibly massive and actually seemed connected to the local community. It really seemed like a city event as opposed to an event happening in the city.
Full disclosure: I coached Erin and Christine last year as novices, and this year as first year competitive rowers. I might be biased about their success, but am honestly amazed by the opportunities masters rowing provides.