A young area rowing program has taken over the national spotlight.
The Upper Natoma Rowing Club is currently in its second year – races and regattas running throughout. While other area programs have hundreds of rowers and decades of history, this club has achieved much in a short time.
About 60 athletes comprise teams of fours and eights in boats purchased with personal financing by the coaching staff. That same passion for rowing exemplified by its coaches has translated into successful scholarship signings by its athletes.
Five club student-athletes committed to Division I NCAA schools this year. Clara Nowinski (St. Francis) committed to Cal, Paige Watson (Rio Americano) to Stanford, Missy Riehl (St. Francis) to University of Pennsylvania, Savannah Eldridge (Vista del Lago) also to Cal, and Erin Allen (Folsom) to University of Tennessee. A few more athletes will sign to universities at the end of March, while four athletes signed scholarships last year.
The club has garnered national recognition despite having to rig and de-rig its boats every day, due to not having a boathouse. The lack of a boathouse, however, hasn’t made a difference.
Allen, a former gymnast, was told by a doctor at a young age she would never run or play most sports. A birth defect in her foot and subsequent surgery weren’t enough to keep the coxswain away from Lake Natoma.
“I was very lost and upset, because I had to stop dancing,” Allen said. “In the summer of 2008 I saw rowing for the first time at the Olympics in Beijing. I instantly liked it and wanted to learn more. I learned about rowing and the incredible water on Lake Natoma. Upper Natoma is a very close-knit and determined group of athletes.”
With Allen’s skill at the coxswain position, the club’s varsity eights boat took ninth at Nationals in Tennessee. The club also qualified three other boats.
Eldridge was part of a varsity four team which advanced to nationals. In the qualifying race, her boat took on 40 pounds of water. The 6-foot former basketball player jumped ship as a sophomore and hasn’t hit the hardwood since.
“I immediately loved it, not only the rowing, but the land work as well. I just loved the feeling of pushing yourself to your limits every day. That’s pretty much what has carried me to where I am now, hard work,” Eldridge said.
Hard work and adversity seem to be themes for the club. Coaches volunteer their time – unpaid – trailer in boats every day, and convinced athletes to join a club based solely on reputation to that point. Coach Dave Hayashi, with 20 years of coaching experience in Sacramento, put up his own money for the club’s three “fours” boats.
For Hayashi, credit is to be spread around.
“We have some very good parents who are willing to help us out. We try to teach kids life skills such as teamwork, sportsmanship, working hard to achieve goals, self-esteem and self worth,” Hayashi said. “In this sport we have to work together to be successful. If one person does not work hard then it can ruin the success for the boat.”
Four coaches with nearly 50 years of combined rowing experience have engrained the club’s philosophies in its athletes.
On the precipice of joining the nation’s college elite, the sophomore class of the club’s rowers takes their humble beginnings into the fray with them.
“As a first-year program people often look at the success of the club with shock and admiration, but I personally don’t think being a new program held us back at all,” Eldridge said. “If anything it pushed us to work harder. To prove to not only ourselves, but the other teams that we are fast, and that you don’t need a fancy boathouse or nice equipment to win races. You simply need to work harder than the other crews you’re up against. I firmly believe that this is the attitude all of our athletes hold, and I think that’s the attitude that has contributed to all of our success.”