This week, two rowers who grew up on Vashon and learned to row in Quartermaster Harbor will head off to the World Rowing U-23 Championships in Poznan, Poland, along with their coach Richard Parr.
The island rowers, Jacob Plihal and Baxter Call, along with Alex Lilichenko and Jesse Maritz, will represent the United States in the under-23 men’s quadruple scull competition. The idea to aim for Worlds started last summer, Plihal said, when he competed at the world competition with a crew put together in California. There were troubles throughout their training time, including a last-minute injury that required a late substitute. The boat did not do well, and Plihal and Parr — who had been Plihal’s rowing coach when he was a high school student on Vashon — made plans then to work together this year and aim for a strong finish.
“I wanted to see what could actually happen if it all went according to plan,” Plihal said recently.
As this summer drew closer, Plihal, who most recently rowed for Northeastern University, reached out to his former Vashon Island Rowing Club teammate Call, who spent the last four years rowing for Oregon State University. Call’s teammate Maritz, from Stanwood, Washington, was also interested. With assistance from Parr and USRowing, the team filled the quad with a fourth man, Alex Lilichenko, who rows at the University of California, Berkeley, but spent last year training in France.
Call and Maritz could not attend the first week of training, as they were still in school, and the foursome has only practiced together for three weeks. They will be competing against teams who have been training for this race for months. Now twice a day every day, they are out on the water around Vashon for five hours total. All that water time is essential to mold a strong quad out of their different styles.
“Every stroke has to count, and we have to do a lot of strokes,” said Parr, who along with coaching the new Burton Beach Rowing Club’s juniors, is also the head coach for Northwest Rowing Center — a high-performance training center he created this year with his wife Sarah Low.
Call, like Plihal, rowed for Parr as a member of the Vashon Island Rowing Club. He rowed in the bow seat in those days — and is back in that seat now, with only good things to say about the experience.
“It has been really cool to be back on the island and back in the rowing community here,” he said. “It really feels like a total homecoming experience, and it has been great.”
Nearly two weeks ago, the four rowers traveled to Princeton, New Jersey, with Parr where they competed at USRowing’s U-23 trials for a spot on the national team. They won, securing their trip to Poland. That was job number one, Parr noted last week, with more work still to do.
“We were fast enough at trials, but we need to get faster,” he added.
None of the men talk about winning, but instead they have more modest goals. In recent years, the U-23 men’s quad has repeatedly come in dead last — or close to it, at the world competition. They want to be substantially better than that.
“In the top six or top 10 would be a good step for U.S. men’s sculling,” Plihal said.
Call spoke more philosophically.
“I want to beat everyone we can beat and do not want to get beat by anyone we shouldn’t lose to,” he said. “This is the world stage. Some crews have been training together for months, and some have really stellar talents.”
Parr would like to see a respectable performance that future U-23 U.S. boats could build on — beginning to pave the way for a future U.S. medalist or champion. He believes that is possible.
“With a good race, we should make a decent showing,” he said, noting that the men had gained speed since their trip to New Jersey. “If we can improve technique still, that will help. There is not a lack of heart or desire or dedication from these boys.”
Together, they will fly out Thursday, July 19, for the July 25-29 competition. Their race is 2,000 meters, as is standard for competitive rowing at the junior and senior levels, and Parr said he hopes they will finish in under six minutes, if conditions allow. They are expected to compete against 15 other boats from all over the world, with some 900 athletes participating in the event.
Once it is over, the Vashon rowers will take different paths. Plihal has bigger rowing dreams.
“I am going to keep going,” Plihal said. “I am going to use it as a stepping stone. I am going to aim for a spot on the U.S. Senior National Team.”
The senior team is the one that competes at the elite competitions, like the World Championships (not junior) and Olympics.
For Call, who is headed to graduate school, this will be the end of his rowing career, after rowing on Vashon in high school and all four years at Oregon State. He had never expected to row at this level and considers it a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“I have interests other than rowing, and this is a really fulfilling way to cap off my rowing career,” he said.
The cost of competing falls strictly on the competitors, and USRowing has helped to set up a fundraising site for those who would like to contribute at www.tinyurl.com/yced2kk2.