Rowers put Vashon on the map for crew

Vashon's men's quad, with (from left) Baxter Call, Tate Gill, Jacob Plihal and Patrick Hanson, was one of two Vashon boats to bring home medals from Nationals this year.
— image credit: Kevin Jeffries Photo


As teenage brothers Baxter and Fletcher Call rowed a slim shell through a 2,000-meter course last weekend, they began to realize that despite their best efforts, their boat was too far behind to make it to the medal round they were aiming for. With water spraying and a desert wind whipping around them on Lake Natoma in Sacramento, the boys made a tough decision. Fletcher, a sophomore at Vashon High School, and Baxter, a senior, would take it easy to the finish line so that Baxter could save his energy for another, more promising race immediately after that in the national competition.

The Call boys, as it turned out, finished so slowly that they were disqualified from their race. But less than an hour later, Baxter joined three others — Patrick Hanson, Jacob Plihal and Tate Gill — to barely qualify in a semifinal race on their way to place third in the nation in their men’s quad.

“(Fletcher) sacrificed his boat so his brother could save himself for what would turn out to be a very hard semifinal,” said coach Richard Parr. “If he hadn’t done it, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the medal.”

Parr later passed the bronze medal he was awarded as coach of the team on to Fletcher, honoring what he calls an attitude that has helped the Vashon Island Junior Crew in recent years catapult onto the local and national rowing scene as a force to be reckoned with.

“We don’t focus on winning,” Parr said. “We focus on being the best you can be, both on and off the water and in your life.”

This year the small rowing club capped off another successful season by sending a record 10 boats and 18 rowers to the USRowing Youth National Championships in Sacramento, where five boats placed in the top 10 in the nation and two boats — including Baxter’s — took home medals.

Those involved with the rowing club call the results phenomenal for a team of its size, giving credit to a group of hard-working young athletes, a troupe of dedicated parent supporters and Parr, a world-class rowing coach who landed on Vashon two years ago.

“The quality of rowing is much higher now,” said Colby Atwood, a masters rower and president of the club’s board. “(Parr) is really putting Vashon on the map and creating a program that any other coach would give his eye teeth to get into.”

The Vashon Island Rowing Club began in the early 1990s, when a small group of women decided to hit Quartermaster Harbor in a rowing shell.

“We were pretty bad,” recalled Ellen Call, a rower who was involved in the early years and who’s sons are now on the junior team. “No one had previous experience. It was like the blind leading the blind.”

Before too long, several of the women’s husbands decided to join in, and the group attracted a coach, making for the beginnings of an active masters rowing program that would compete in local regattas and regional competitions.

A junior program for teen rowers was added in 1996, and less than a decade later Vashon sent its first boat to the junior national championships.

Tom Kicinski, who was in that boat at Nationals in 2005 and also went to Nationals the following year, went on to row for the University of Washington. A couple years ago, Kicinski returned to Vashon to be assistant coach of the junior crew, and he says he saw a marked difference in the youth program.

“It’s a very, very different environment,” he said. “There’s a lot of motivation and accountability within the program that wasn’t there when I was a part of it.”

Some say a turning point for the club may have been in 2011, when talented local rower Mia Croonquist, then just 14, competed with the U.S. team at the junior world championships and won gold in her four-woman boat. Around the same time, a couple of her Vashon teammates also made a splash on the national rowing scene, and several went on to row at prestigious colleges around the country.

This year Croonquist, now a high school senior, was part of the other Vashon boat that medaled at Nationals, joining junior Kirsten Girard to take the bronze in women’s double.

“I think that was a huge accomplishment,” Parr said of Croonquist’s trip to the world competition, which she repeated the following year. “But that also made some people think, hang on, we know her and she trains just like we do. When one of your own does it, you look around the boathouse and go, ‘Okay, why not me?’”

Another big boon for the club came in 2012, when Parr, an accomplished international rowing coach, submitted his resume to lead the Vashon club. The club’s search committee, looking to follow coaches Sam Burns and Steve Full, was floored.

Parr’s 20-year coaching career includes leading the New Zealand, Canadian and Irish national rowing teams and going to the 2004 Olympics in Athens as the head of Ireland’s Olympic team. He came to Vashon by way of New Zealand, where he taught coaching at a university there and was a consultant to other coaches in the region. He had recently decided to move to the Seattle area to be closer to his partner, who, incidentally, now works for The Beachcomber.

“It was extremely fortunate timing,” Atwood said.

While club members and parents say Parr has brought Vashon’s already strong juniors program to a new level of competition, Parr is quick to credit the 40 young athletes who are part of the team. Rowing is considered by many to be more demanding than other high school sports, with practice year-round, grueling on-the-water exercises and regattas almost every weekend during the fall and spring rowing seasons.

The Vashon juniors now frequently out-row boats from larger teams as well as select teams, clubs such as the Seattle Rowing Center that hold tryouts and draw rowers from around the state and country to fill their boats. Of the 132 teams to qualify for this year’s national rowing competition in Sacramento, Vashon sent the second largest number of boats. In addition to the two medaling boats, three other Vashon boats placed in the top 10 in their events, a significant accomplishment on the national stage.

Senior Jacob Plihal placed sixth in a single, the women’s quad — with Croonquist, Girard, Kalie Heffernan and Riley Lynch — placed ninth, and the women’s lightweight four — with Emily Milbrath, Hannah Russell, Virginia Miller, Maddie McEachern and coxswain Callie Andrews — finished 10th. Heffernan, a junior competing in a single, placed 12th, and other Vashon boats placed 15th, 18th and 19th.

“It’s a huge deal,” Kicinski said of the results. “When you’re at Nationals, they look at the entries and assume Vashon is a large club.”

Kicinski said that while Vashon has fewer athletes to pick from, as well as smaller facilities and fewer coaches, the club focuses on developing what they do have.

“The ones we have are really committed to making it happen,” he said. “It doesn’t slow us down much to have a small pool.”

Kicinski and Parr also have high praise for the rowers’ parents, who they say play a part in the team’s success by weaving a strong support system. Many parents volunteer their time with the club, help regattas run seamlessly and donate money beyond the annual fees to see that the club can buy new boats and maintain equipment. In recent years club volunteers have also put on an annual bike ride, the Passport to Pain, which has become a regional draw for cyclists and also brought in badly needed funds for the juniors and masters programs.

“The club owes a lot to the parents,” Atwood said, “and a lot of their enthusiasm is driven by the results that coach Richard Parr is getting.”

Parr has also provided leadership for the more than 30 islanders who row with Vashon’s masters crew, many of whom row daily and compete at the masters level while holding down full-time jobs and other obligations.

Atwood, who will compete with other masters at the regional competition next weekend, called rowing demanding, but he said it’s worth it to participate in a sport people can do throughout their lives — the club’s oldest member is 72. He also enjoys being part of a tight-knit group of islanders and now considers many of his fellow rowers friends.

“It’s more than just a sport; it’s a community,” Atwood said. “I’ve joked that if they all decided to be a bicycle club, then I’d become a bicycle guy.”

As for Parr, he says he tries to keep the mood light for all ages — he’s been thrown in a lake by the juniors and worn bows in his year this season. He’s also looking to keep up the momentum the club has gained in recent years.

“I provide the opportunity for each athlete to discover what’s inside themselves,” Parr said. “You find that when you do that, they discover some pretty cool things.”

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