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The heart of a rower: Attitude and athleticism take a Vashon girl far
When Mia Croonquist arrived for her first practice with Vashon’s junior crew, the then-eighth-grader almost turned around.
“I was nervous to show up because I didn’t know anyone,” Mia recalled. “I wasn’t even going to show up.”
Looking back, she says she’s glad she got over her fears.
Next week Mia, who is now 14 and has just a year and a half of rowing under her belt, will head to England as the youngest girl to ever compete with the U.S. team at the World Rowing Junior Championships.
“It’s hard to imagine that all of this is happening so quickly,” Mia said last week, having just finished a day of training with the team at Princeton University. “It’s just amazing. It hasn’t all hit me yet.”
Mia, a 6-foot blonde with a sweet smile and a cheerful disposition, grew up on Inner Quartermaster Harbor, where she spent much of her free time swimming, waterskiing and wakeboarding with her two older brothers — one of whom went on to row for Santa Clara University.
The daughter of Tom Croonquist, director of development at University Village, and Elsa Croonquist, a marketing consultant, Mia excelled at basketball and soccer on Vashon but discovered a true talent for rowing almost as soon as she got out in a boat. Placed by the coach in a four-woman boat with other talented newcomers to the Vashon Island Junior Crew (VIJC), Mia and her teammates won all but a couple of races at regional regattas during her first year on the team, which included two seasons of competition.
“I couldn’t have asked for better novice seasons,” she said.
Last season one of Mia’s boats — a women’s varsity quad with Avalon Koenig, Emmie Kehoe and Alaina Williams — took first at the district rowing competition, qualifying them for the national championships, where they came in second.
Mia — who says she loves being on the water, challenging herself physically and being part of a team — credits her previous experience in sports, in addition to her height and strength, as helping her excel on the water. VIJC coach Steve Full, a national champion rower from the University of Washington, agreed, calling Mia a well-rounded athlete who is extremely coachable.
“A lot of times in rowing you get people who haven’t played a lot of sports. … A great characteristic of any rower is to have that ability to adapt, and that comes from having a background in other sports,” he said.
But perhaps most integral to Mia’s success, Full said, is simply her attitude.
“She’s really mature for her age, but she also has a bubbly attitude,” he said. “She smiles a lot and always seems to be laughing. A carefree attitude really helps in rowing because the sport takes a lot of mental discipline. If you can’t be fun with yourself and fun with others, it becomes a drain.”
Liz Trond, a coach for the U.S. junior women’s team, also noticed Mia’s attitude when she began following her in the eighth grade.
“She’s strong and well developed,” Trond said of the young rower, “and her maturity is unbelievable for a 14-year-old.”
Last summer Mia was invited to a national training camp to prepare her to try for the U.S. team, which she did at a selection camp this summer. Mia said she was thrilled to attend the camp in Connecticut, but believed her age and inexperience would prevent her from making the cut.
“You don’t hear about a lot of young kids making it … and I was still kind of new,” she said.
Not only did Mia make the U.S. team, but coaches put her in the priority boat — the women’s four — where they place the team’s top athletes in hopes of medaling at the world competition. The other girls in the women’s four were also in the boat last summer when it came in second place.
“It’s the best situation she could hope for, to be in a boat with three retuning silver medalists,” said Trond, who coaches Mia’s boat.
And though training to aim for gold at worlds can put a large amount of pressure on the young athletes, Trond said, so far Mia has taken everything in stride.
“She has done better than we even expected,” she said. “She has a good way of remaining very balanced, which is important in high-level sports.”
Just a week away from leaving for England, Mia seemed anxious to compete, but not at all worn down from training.
“I wake up every morning and say, ‘Yay, I get row,’” she said. “I still look forward to it. It’s not like waking up and going to school.”
Full believes it’s Mia’s pure love for the sport that has taken her far in crew and will continue to drive her success.
“Her time in rowing will be endless, as long as her passion stays there,” he said. “She’ll not only have a great time rowing, but it will take her on quite an adventure. This is just the beginning.”
And though Mia seems to be happiest on the water and already plans to one day row at the collegiate level, she says she recognizes the huge commitment that crew has become, and recently made the decision to take a year off from the sport.
“As much as I love crew, it is so intense,” she said. “Some people have warned me don’t burn out, save yourself for college. … I knew I kind of needed to take a break because I’ve pushed myself a lot to get where I am.”
Mia’s time off from rowing will be an adventure in itself, though, as she plans to spend the next academic year at a boarding school in Kona, Hawaii, a place she and her father have visited and loved. Mia said she decided to leave Vashon because she has always loved Hawaii and she’ll have little time to travel while rowing in college. She added that it would be too tempting to row while still living on Vashon.
“I’d be miserable knowing I had the opportunity to row and I wasn’t rowing,” she said. “Going to school in Hawaii lets me cross train and do track, or soccer or basketball again.”
Trond, who said she has enjoyed coaching Mia and hopes to see the women’s four place again at the world competition, said worlds is just the beginning of Mia’s rowing career. Though she’s still young, she said, she has the same abilities and work ethic that she has seen take other young athletes to the Olympics.
“She’s got an incredible path, and certainly the path of an Olympian,” Trond said.
Mia is just one of several talented rowers to emerge from Vashon in recent years. In 2006, Tom Kicinski was the first high schooler from Vashon to be selected to compete for the U.S. at the world championships. And this year, VIJC sent a record four boats to the USRowing Youth National Championships in May, a number those who are close to the sport say is phenomenal for a team with less than 40 members.
Olivia Sayvetz, a 2011 Vashon High School graduate, recently earned a scholarship to be a coxswain on Princeton University’s crew team and just missed qualifying to go to worlds with Mia. Emmie and Charlotte Kehoe were also chosen to compete on highly selective teams at the USRowing Club National Championships, and Gus Magnusson participated in a preparatory West Coast training camp at the Seattle Rowing Center.
“It really comes down to the attitude we have,” Full said of Mia and the rest of the Vashon crew. “They discover they have a real passion for rowing, and once they discover they have the ability, they go get it.”