Two summers ago, Lauren Coop plotted a new course to college.
The Mountain View High School student was doing what she loved, playing basketball in California with her club team.
And yet, her mind was somewhere else.
“All I could think about was what practice was like at home, like what they were doing at rowing,” Coop said, referring to workouts with the Vancouver Lake Rowing Club. “And I was on the plane home, and then something clicked in brain. If I’m here doing something super fun and all I can think about is rowing, maybe it’s time to get a little bit more serious about it.”
It was then she switched from a sport she had played since the second grade to going full time into a sport she had just been introduced to just a year earlier. That decision can sometimes be hard to explain to friends and family.
“They’re like ‘What? You don’t play basketball anymore?’ ” Coop said. “And I’m like ‘No, I row.’ Then they’re like ‘What’s rowing?’ And I’m like ‘Gosh! Ahhh! You know, like the boats? At college? UW?’ But it’s been fine. I like talking about it.”
Coop has a lot more to talk about now. On Wednesday, Coop became one of two Mountain View seniors to sign letters of intent with Division I college crew programs.
Coop signed with Syracuse while VLRC teammate Kate Feustel signed with San Diego State.
“That’s the beauty of Title IX and rowing,” said Alan Stewart, head coach at VLRC. “It gives these kids some opportunities. Boys, not so much, but the girls get a bigger chance.”
Feutsel is in her fourth year of rowing, getting her start four summers ago after moving to the area from Florida.
“I came to do the learn-to-row program over the summer,” Feustel said. “I just fell in love with it and never stopped.”
Coop was also introduced during the summer learn-to-row program. Unlike Feustel, who had never really participated in competitive sports before, Coop was drawn to the physical nature of rowing, which she thought would help augment her fitness for basketball.
“I heard how rowing was super intense and I always liked that aspect of basketball, like when we would lift weights and do strength training and stuff,” Coop said. “I was always into the hard-hitting workouts. So my mom said ‘You should try it. It sounds like your personality would fit.’ Then I tried it and I fell in love with it.”
It’s a story Stewart has witnessed over and over.
“It’s a funny sport,” he said. “I’ve had kids come out, and either they love it or they hate it. There’s not a whole lot in between. It’s hard work. It’s really hard work.”
The work got even harder last spring, when COVID-19 restrictions took the rowers off the water less than a month after the end of a winter season that is spent mostly indoors.
“I remember our very last practice,” Coop said. “It was a beautiful day on the lake. Then our coach said we had to cancel. The governor sent out the order. So then we were all able to take a rowing machine (called an ergometer) home. From March to May/June, I was erging in the middle of my bedroom, alone.”
Apart from being off the water, the restrictions also took away Feustel’s favorite part of the sport.
“I really love the team aspect,” Feustel said. “It has a team aspect but there is also an individual aspect. In a boat, you all work together. But if everyone is not working their hardest, then it’s not going to work well. I thought that was really cool — that you have to hold yourself accountable to your teammates.”
Stewart said the discipline of rowers like Coop and Feustel during the pandemic helped them secure their college offers.
“That’s what separates the people who have the real determination from those that don’t,” Stewart said, adding that at the start of the pandemic “I sent home rowing machines to all our kids. … And I said ‘you have to log your meters.’ And meters weren’t being logged by half the kids. If they’re by themselves, it was hard to push themselves.”
Coop found that watching movies while working out alone helped. She also participated in Zoom workouts with a club in the Puget Sound area, which led to her first opportunity to get back on the water near Vashon Island late last spring.
“I was able to get out on the water with them, which was literally a lifesaver,” she said. “The first row ever was amazing. I was so tired of being in my bedroom alone.”
Coop got her offer from Syracuse even though the coaches never saw her on the water. It was all based on her performance on the ergometer.
“Rowing is super cut and dry,” Coop said. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing. However fast you go on that 2,000-meter race on the erg, that’s your score. It’s the same thing as an SAT kind of for getting into college. You can just look at that. There are a lot of other factors that coaches like to put into it, but basically if you’re fast on the erg, you can go to college for rowing.”
Since returning to the water last summer, the VLRC rowers have been in single boats for social distancing, which has its advantages and disadvantages.
“They really learn the feel for the boat (in a single), and they’re on their own,” Stewart said. “We have a standard joke in rowing that you can hide in an 8-man shell. … In a small boat, that’s it. You can’t hide.”
While rowing is an excellent alternative to traditional high school sports, especially during the pandemic, Stewart offers one bit of advice to prospective rowers – wait until the spring to start.
“It becomes a drudgery in the winter,” Stewart said. “It’s cold. You’re coming down here and all you’re doing is lifting weights, and you’re not getting on the water, which is really where they want to be. It’s tough. So I tell parents to come back in the spring because if you start now the likelihood of not enjoying it and quitting, not wanting to come back, is greater than if they try it the spring, when it’s more fun and the weather is better.”
Being outside, on the water, in cold and wet weather of the Northwest — even in the spring — was the biggest adjustment for the Florida-born Feustel. It also fueled her decision to sign with San Diego State in warm, sunny Southern California.
“It’s definitely taken some getting used to,” Feustel said. “I’ve gotten a lot better with it over time. But I’ll still show up in shorts and tank top sometimes, and then go ‘Oh it’s a lot colder than I thought it would be.’ But once you get out on the water and warmed up, it’s not that bad.”
For Coop, rowing has changed her course to college, especially after year of thinking basketball would be her path to college.
“It was always a hope in my brain,” Coop said. “But I was also preparing myself like ‘You’re probably not going to do this in college.’ And now I’m like ‘Oh wow, dreams came true, just in a different way.’ “