The Kingston High School varsity rowing team is streaking toward the end of another successful season, one in which they’ve competed against schools with more money to splash out on equipment and training. At Kingston High, rowing is a communal experience. Just don’t call them a crew team.
“We don’t call the sport ‘crew,’” said head coach Scott Johnson. “The people in a given boat are a crew, and we call the sport rowing because that’s what we’re actually doing. I don’t know what you’re doing if you’re crewing. We refer to the team as the Kingston High School varsity rowing team.”
The Kingston High School varsity rowing team has been around for nearly two decades, a program that is popular with student-athletes but gets very little attention from the media. It’s also a sport that wouldn’t exist without the hard work of a great many people.
“I think one of the neatest things about this is, in the words of Hillary Clinton, it takes a village,” Johnson said. “This really kind of cool cooperative thing between Kingston High School, which is really supportive of the program; the YMCA; the Hudson River Maritime Museum; the Rondout Rowing Club; the parents; and even the Ulster County Sheriff’s Department come together each year to kind of allow this sport to happen. It’s kind of way out of the normal paradigm for a high school team.”
Sheila Wise is the co-founder of the Rondout Rowing Club and was a rowing coach with Kingston High until she stepped away this year to allow her son, Arlo Stone, a ninth-grader, the chance to join the team without having his mom around. She said that the cost of other programs is fairly prohibitive, citing another local school competing against Kingston in the 15-team Hudson Valley Rowing League as charging students an initial fee of $600 per season, with the tally topping $1,000 by the end of the year with various incidentals. In Kingston, it costs $2,500 total for 60 kids to row with the Rondout Rowing Club, which they’re able to continue doing after the season is over. Parents help raise money for the program, she added. As for other costs, it’s considerably less than in other schools. “Our kids pay $40 if they want to eat all season at the regattas,” Wise said.
A true group effort
The rowing team competes in boats of both four and eight rowers, with a coxswain sitting in the stern of the boat and steering while helping coordinate the rhythm of the rowers. It’s a symbiotic relationship in the boat, one that speaks to the spirit of togetherness that runs through the heart of the program itself.
“The team is run as a co-ed team,” said Johnson. “We have boys and girls on the team. We go to regattas, which are the equivalent of a meet that’s hardly ever a dual, and depending upon the regatta, generally boys race against boys, girls race against girls, but we function as a team. We all take the boats off the trailers, we all rig the boats to get ready to race, we all work together, we all cheer together. We’re together. Some races like this last weekend they even had a mixed race where we had four boys and four girls in a boat racing against other crews.”
Earlier this month, the team’s varsity girls 8 rowed in the finals in the state championships in Saratoga, placing 16th out of 25 boats overall. The boat was rowed by Agnes Anderson, Taylor Robey, Karlee North, Bailey Shaffer, Julia Wolf, Katherine Kuster, Jordan Sleight and MacKenzie DerCola, with Stone serving as coxswain. On Saturday, May 13, the team rowed in a head race, where boats are sent down the course individually for time. Kingston qualified for the final with a time of six-minutes, 1.86 seconds. The following day, the team cut their time to five-minutes, 49.872 seconds in a sprint event, where they raced alongside eight other boats.
On Wednesday, May 17, Kingston earned a handful of medals in the Hudson Valley Rowing League’s (HVRL) Orange/Ulster Championship, with the boys’ 4-plus taking silver in a boat rowed by Brendan Jaeger, Josh Shafran, Ryan North and Jacob Kirschner, with Sarah West serving as coxswain.
The boys’ 8 earned a bronze medal, with Liam Maybe, Hunter Williams, Connor Whittington-Couse, Jose Torres, Joseph Lynch, Dominick Vertullo, Jordan Hulbert and Liam Hutton rowing, and James Joy the coxswain.
The same girls’ 8 — with Stone as coxswain — also took bronze in the event, as did the girls’ light weight 4-plus in a boat coxed by Mealea VanDermark and rowed by Faye Higgins, Julie Lasher, Olivia VanPelt and Jillian Goralewski.
For Kingston High rowers, the sport is all about challenging themselves and a love of the water. Many of them come into the program as novices.
“Virtually nobody comes to our team who knows how to do this sport,” said Johnson. “Basketball, maybe they’ve already played in grade school or junior high, or they’ve gone through CYO. Same thing with football, baseball, soccer, maybe even lacrosse. When kids come to our sport, they sort of do it on the fly. It looks cool and maybe it might be fun, or they have a friend doing it but they don’t really know which end of the oar to hold. And it’s a pretty demanding sport. It’s demanding physically and demanding tactically. It’s a sport in which you’re in a boat and you’re part of an engine. And all the cylinders, like in an engine, have got to be firing in their sequence.”
Before the start of the regatta season, the rowing team spends around a month indoors at the YMCA working on rowing machines to get in shape and learn rowing techniques. Unlike many other sports in many other schools, Kingston rowers aren’t generally spending all year in a boat.
“We are not an elite program,” Johnson said. “Our kids are not doing this exclusively or over the summer. These kids are AP students or in the band, doing plays, doing a ton of things. They’re just wonderful kids. But in any given year it’s about the athletes. If you get big, strong people in your boat, your boat’s going to go faster. Sometimes that’s us and sometimes it’s somebody else. We work hard and sometimes we’re quite successful, and sometimes we beat these teams with a lot more money and resources.”
The lure of rowing for Kingston kids is sometimes about the community’s close proximity to water, and sometimes it’s just about competition and challenge.
“Freshman year, when I was looking for a sport I wanted a full-body experience,” said Shafran, a senior. “I tried swimming competitively and it wasn’t for me. And then I saw a flyer with nine people in a boat and I had no idea what it was. It went to informational meeting, and my first impression after being told that we’d row in the snow, we’d row in the rain, and all these conditions, I was up for the challenge. I wanted to throw myself into this foreign environment to see how well I would fend. There were numerous times when I told the coach during tryouts, ‘This is not for me. I’m sure this is not what you want to see from an athlete trying out for a varsity sport.’ The coach believed in me. He said, ‘I am not going to cut you from the team, only you can cut yourself from the team.’ It’s about pushing yourself past your limit, where your red line is.”
Karlee North, another senior, said the experience her freshman year was enough to convince her she’d be a part of the team throughout high school. “I love everything about being out on the water,” she said. “I just couldn’t see myself anywhere else in the springtime.”
North said the season has been bittersweet as it’s her last in Kingston, but she’s enjoyed showing her brother Ryan, a freshman, the ropes.
Wolf is also a senior who’s been with the team for four years, and she sees the end of her high school rowing career coming up fast.
“This year has been really emotional,” she said, “Our boat has done really well, but I’m not rowing in college, so this is it for me.”
The KHS varsity rowing team has two regattas remaining this season: The HVRL sculling championship at the Hudson River Maritime Museum scheduled for Thursday, June 1, with the HVRL sweeps championships at the Hudson River Rowing Association’s Poughkeepsie boathouse two days later. After that, the seniors will move on and the team’s underclassmen will remain, bringing with them a sense of camaraderie that’s a key to the success of the program both in and out of the water. “When you’re on the team everybody makes you feel connected, really a part of the team,” said Stone. “You’re together in the boat and it makes you more confident.”