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Off the water, BA-B crew team bulldozes state finals

From their garages, basements, and Cape houses, the athletes of the Bromfield Acton-Boxborough rowing team won more medals at their spring championship than any other team, by an order of magnitude—and not a single oar touched water. This is the story of the strange spring 2020 crew season.

The BA-B crews had just begun their dry land training back in March when the schools announced they’d be shutting down for a few weeks. The coaches sprang into action, loaning out the team’s 27 rowing machines, called ergometers or ergs for short; seven stationary bike ergs; and weight bars. Between the loaners and machines families already owned, the team had enough equipment for all varsity and most novice rowers. “We are very lucky,” said BA-B’s rowing director Holly Hatton. “Some programs rent space in fitness centers, which were all closed. Other public school programs were told, ‘You’re shut down.’” The rowing team operates as a club, Hatton said, so they had a little more leeway.

Audrey Maxwell's cat confirms her erg scores. Courtesy photo)

Coaches then began giving the kids workout assignments. Not a week’s or a month’s worth at a time, but daily check-ins. “The fact that I was doing it every single day, it was a little bit of accountability for me, too,” said boys varsity Coach Brian DeDominici. Team captains ran fun challenges like handstand contests. But the school closures continued, and as the weeks went by, regatta hosts canceled every event the team would have attended. The BA-B team could train, but was there a way for them to compete? If they couldn’t sprint race against other boats, what could they do?

They could log meters. Gary Piantedosi, the BA-B boys assistant coach, crafted some trophies with hammers on top, like the awards at the C.R.A.S.H.-B sprints, the world championship of indoor rowing. (That stands for Charles River All Star Has-Beens, a story for another day.) The coaches divided all the kids into smaller teams. Any distance an athlete ran, biked, or erged would count. The winners of the Meter Challenge would take home the hammers. Seeing their teammates’ dedication in the Google Sheet motivated kids to keep up with the optional activity. “We did it with the expectation that kids would have varying interest in it,” DeDominici said. “I was impressed with the number of kids that logged meters every day.” Collectively, participants moved more than 11.8 million meters, DeDominici said. Some kids went a million meters individually. Next, it was time to find out how the spring crews stacked up against longtime rivals such as Wayland-Weston and Arlington-Belmont.

Mitch McManus coached BA-B novice boys in 2019 and is now the program director and head coach at Greater Lawrence Rowing. He conceived of a weekly competition called S.C.R.U.B.S.—Spring Cyber Regattas United to Beat Social Distancing. Athletes would erg and then send in photos of their times on the machine’s monitor display. At lunch time on each race day, McManus announced an object—sunglasses, a frying pan—to include in the photo, to foil anyone from posting an old personal record. “If you were competing in a single, you could join the scullers from the other teams on Zoom before the race,” Hatton said. After, BA-B kids and coaches could meet and talk. Watching the results come in on a Google Doc was a little bit like an actual regatta, where riverside spectators refresh their phone screens for race results. “It was exciting,” Hatton says. “You get nervous.” While not ideal, S.C.R.U.B.S. did manage to generate a bit of a real rowing season experience for Massachusetts kids.

MPSRA gets creative

And so the season went, until the end of May. That’s when the Massachusetts Public Schools Rowing Association typically holds its Spring Championship Regatta on the Merrimack River in Lowell. This year, the organization had to get creative; it would host the state finals on “Lake Internet.” Athletes would erg, run, or ride a stationary bike 1,500 meters and submit their times at any point during the week. The race was shorter than the dreaded “2K,” or 2,000-meter erg tests, to encourage participation; bikers went double the distance. Athletes were then sorted into virtual boats based on their times. A team’s fastest finisher would be its entry in the single, the second and third fastest would be paired up in a virtual double, and the next four athletes formed a pretend quad.

BA-B’s training paid dividends. Of the 124 competitors representing 12 teams, a whopping 50 wore the blue and white swoosh. Their strength lay not only in their numbers but in their speed. They struck rowing gold with Kaylee Liu in the girls single; Anna Shlimak and Summer Maxwell in the girls double; Christopher Clark and Maxwell Ewing in the boys double; Molly O’Neill, Anya Buchovecky, Eliza Straayer, and Hana Chytil in the girls quad; and John Babcock, Clark Hanlon, Ryan Crowley, and Charlie Maxwell in the boys quad. Stefan Scornavacca scored silver in the single, as did Rachel Shrives in the coxswain category. Runners turned in just as many medals. Sanjana Rao grabbed gold in the girls single category, as did Milo Whitbeck and William Bardenheuer in the double and Lucas Villaseñor in the coxswain race. Silvers were scooped up by Matthew Atwell in the single; Zoe Flanzer and Emma Perkins in the double; and coxswain Nathan Kushner. Rounding out the medal count was coxswain Sophie Thompson with a bronze.

Instead of its annual potluck banquet at Fruitlands, the team celebrated online. Juniors compiled a video of seniors sharing funny memories and advice for younger rowers. It wasn’t the season anyone wanted or had even imagined, but there were unexpected benefits. “One of the things that I think the athletes learned is that they have a lot more in them than they realized,” Hatton said. “They’re so used to having their teammates, their coxswain, and their coach, many of them feel that they are dependent on that in order to pull hard. What they found out is that they aren’t. Now you take that knowledge and apply having a teammate there, having a coxswain there, and you’ve doubled your ability to be a mentally stronger athlete.” Hatton added, “I don’t ever want to have to go through that again—although we’re still going through it. But I do think they’re starting to realize what they got out of it.”

DeDominici expressed the same bittersweet sentiments. “We went through 10 weeks of not rowing. In the end, we weren’t on the water. I’d be down there bailing boats and feeling sad. It’s hard to say goodbye to the seniors this way,” he said. “But I’m happy when I realize what they were able to put together.” Typically the team spends so much time working on technique. This spring, they were able to train at a slow and steady pace, developing a “huge aerobic base,” DeDominici said, that will ultimately serve them well in future racing. “We didn’t shy away, saying this is too much for us all to deal with. We just dug in and said this is the new normal. I’m really proud of the kids, and the parents for supporting them.”

Now, the team is finally getting back on the water. The summer Learn to Row program for youth and adults on Bare Hill Pond starts July 6; complete beginners are welcome. Details are available at barehillrowing.com.

Jill Maxwell is a BA-B parent who covers the team’s races for the Harvard Press.

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