Youth crew teams in Utah overcoming various challenges of the sport to become elite rowers

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Coxswain Emma Goldsmith steers a boat during a Utah Crew workout on the Jordan River in Salt Lake City on Monday Nov. 4, 2019.

The blades of the oars catch the water with the subtle, simultaneous movement of wrists. Mere milliseconds pass before they drive through the water, powered by straightening legs, lengthening backs and pulling arms.

A flick of the wrists starts the measured recovery back to square one. Legs bend. Backs curl. Boat seats slide. Arms straighten. The blades are ready to catch the water again.

It’s 50 degrees on an early Monday evening at the Jordan River surplus canal in West Valley City, where about a dozen members of Utah Crew maniacally practice their rowing technique in boats with up to four teenage boys or girls. For two to three hours six days a week, these rowers work for one purpose: go faster.

Most days end in frustration. The quest for perfection never stops and comes at a price: pain. The only paycheck these athletes receive for their work arrives when their boat achieves swing, which occurs when rowers are so in sync it feels like the boat is gliding effortlessly through the water. Those moments, while rare, make the grueling hours worth it.

“When that happens, all the difficulty seems to dissipate immediately,” says Sasha Jovanovic-Hacon, captain of Utah Crew’s boys’ junior team. “I feel like chasing those ephemeral moments is by far the most rewarding part.”

Utah Crew is one of three youth rowing programs in the state of Utah. The others are Park City Rowing Academy and the team at Waterford School.

Each has the same mission: produce elite rowers that can hopefully earn scholarships to college. But that can be difficult for athletes to achieve not only because of how difficult they say the sport is, but the conditions they deal with on a daily basis living in a state that doesn’t always have ideal rowing conditions.

“If we compare the location to other locations in the United States we're like a step child,” says Niklaus Hess, founder and coach of the Park City Rowing Academy. “We have the four seasons. If it's a good year, we row four months out of the year.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Daniel Carlebach, Wilson Bielaczyc, Sasha Jovanovic-Hacon, Bruno Stehlik, and coxswain Emma Goldsmith during a Utah Crew workout on the Jordan River in Salt Lake City on Monday Nov. 4, 2019.

Utah Crew and Waterford both practice in a stretch of the Jordan River that’s only 1,700 meters long. Competitive races held in the spring are 2,000-meter sprints, while those in the fall are 5,000 meters. So both programs have to adjust their practice regiments to accommodate for the shorter distance.

On Thursdays, Waterford coach Philip Pascale says, both teams are on the river at the same time, creating a boatjam of traffic. And because he can only hold practice on the water three days a week for two hours due to the rules at his school, Pascale’s rowers are at even more of a disadvantage.

“Waterford is a special place where these kids are given an extra difficulty just to compete,” Pascale says as he sits in the lobby of Waterford’s concert hall. “It hurts terribly.”

Sometimes, however, the two teams practice in the Great Salt Lake. There’s ample space out there, but even the slightest 4 mph wind from the northwest can create waves big enough to damage a boat, Pascale says.

For Hess, his rowers aren’t wanting for space at the Jordanelle Reservoir. But in addition to the colder weather and higher altitude, there are people engaging in all types of water sports — jet skiers, water skiers, fisherman, swimmers — that constantly get in the way of his athletes.

Answers to those logistical challenges could be coming soon. Pascale and his assistant coach at Waterford are trying to get another boathouse built along the Jordan River, and the Wasatch Rowing Foundation has plans for a river sports center that would provide an indoor training facility, storage for boats and water-based recreational programs, including rowing.

The foundation also wants to turn a long stretch of the river into a 2,000-meter course, mainly for rowing.

Despite the obstacles, rowers from all three crew programs have excelled over the years. Jovanovic-Hacon, along with teammates Wilson Bielaczyc and Emma Goldsmith, will participate in the USRowing Youth Regional Challenge in Sarasota, Fla., next week, which part of USRowing’s Olympic Development Program.

Pascale has had rowers attend universities such as Yale, Brown and Harvard. Hess says that in the 10 years of PC Rowing’s existence, at least one of his rowers have gone off to compete in college every year.

For the girls that have collegiate careers, Hess names one of his academy’s boats after them.

Pascale says the reason a good number of rowers in Utah succeed is because their tireless work ethic, drive and “A-plus personalities.”

“The kids that truly excel and do this, there's no better way to say it: There's a little sense of masochism in there,” Pascal says. “There’s a little sense of that screw has to be a little loose to want to do this.”

Winter workouts are the most grueling. With almost no rowing on actual bodies of water, workouts occur indoors practically every day of the week. Those consist of lifting weights, ab circuits, leg workouts and using an ergometer machine, which simulates all parts of a rowing stroke and measures performance.

Goldsmith, a junior at Highland High and a coxswain for Utah Crew, describes indoor workouts as “painful,” and says rowing is often miscategorized as an easy sport.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” Goldsmith says. “People tend to underestimate the sport just because it looks very smooth on the water, but it takes so much time to practice the technique and get it down.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sydney Koutrouba and Bella Fisher during a Utah Crew workout on the Jordan River in Salt Lake City on Monday Nov. 4, 2019.

Jovanovic-Hacon says dealing with mental fatigue is by the far the most difficult aspect of becoming an elite rower. Not only are the workouts hard, but little things like weather or water temperature can derail a practice and bring athletes down.

“It’s super easy to get down mentally,” Jovanovic-Hacon says. “It’s difficult to stay focused on the end goal when results are so varying.”

It’s not just the athletes that have obstacles. The two coaches at the smaller crew programs have to worry about competition over their best athletes. One of Pascale’s rowers, Bruno Stehlik, went to Utah Crew under his suggestion because Waterford could not provide the support he needed.

It still hurts the coach to see his former student at the river and regattas.

“The worst is when you go out to practice in your bus with your boats, with your plan, with your everything, and you just see a Waterford kid not a part of it,” Pascale says.

Just last year, a large group of Hess’s rowers left his program and joined Utah Crew. His program, run largely by himself alone, was depleted as a result, and he almost chose to sell off his equipment and close his academy.

But Hess has recently found supporters and currently has two rowers, expecting to have eight in the spring. He likes that he can provide more intimate instruction to a smaller group of athletes.

“Yes, my program is still here,” Hess says. “It’s just really small and it's very focused and committed.”

It seems overcoming those challenges and sacrifices is what keeps athletes — and even coaches — coming back to the water every day. Utah Crew coach Linda Iqbal is a doctor, but says she arranges her professional life around her rowing life. Pascale volunteers his time during winter so his athletes can get their workouts in because there is no support from the school during that season.

For all involved in Utah’s rowing community, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“There’s a lot of bad days to this sport,” Goldsmith says, “but it definitely pays off because there’s so many good days.”