Sarah Deal, seat in front during a coaching stint in New Zealand in 2014, strokes the women’s club pair to a bronze medal for Waikato Rowing Club at New Zealand Nationals (Courtesy Photo).

Sarah Deal, seat in front during a coaching stint in New Zealand in 2014, strokes the women’s club pair to a bronze medal for Waikato Rowing Club at New Zealand Nationals (Courtesy Photo).

A new rowing coach

VIRC’s Sarah Deal, 26, explains her approach to the sport

  • Thursday, December 5, 2019 12:03pm
  • Sports

By Jeff Hoyt

For The Beachcomber

When Sarah Deal had dinner in September with Vashon Island Rowing Club coaches Ben Steele and Maya Krah to consider an offer to coach the men and women of VIRC’s Masters team, she asked to take the weekend to think about it.

“I didn’t want to rush to a decision,” said Deal, “but after visiting the island, I pretty much knew I wanted to be here.”

On Vashon-Maury Island, the one team sport that continues to attract older adults is rowing. The average age of the 56 Masters rowers of VIRC is just a few gray hairs shy of 60.

At just 26 years old, Deal says working with athletes twice (or thrice) her age comes naturally.

“I was an only child so I always hung out with adults,” she said. “That was always more fun for me.”

More than that, the adults she hung out with gave her a unique perspective on competitive athletics. Growing up in Eugene, Ore. — known internationally for track & field — Deal’s father Lance is a four-time Olympian and silver medal winner in the hammer throw. The senior Deal has held the American record for almost as long as his daughter has been alive.

Deal’s father also coached at the University of Oregon for almost a decade, but it didn’t give her the collegiate coaching bug.

“There was so much bureaucracy and focus on scholarships,” Deal said. “I’m not big on setting people’s goals for them. I love to help you achieve what you want to achieve, but I don’t want to tell you who you should be.”

Deal started rowing during her senior year in high school and quickly drew interest from collegiate recruiters. Prior to rowing for Northeastern University in Boston and closer to home at Portland State, Deal was a teenage dressage horseback rider. She finds interesting parallels between the two pursuits.

“Horses can tell if you’re nervous and a boat can tell if you’re nervous,” Deal said. “In rowing, you have to be as precise as possible and stay relaxed, or you’ll transfer that nervousness to the boat.”

Similarly, she thinks dressage riders are uniquely suited for the transition to rowing.

“You’re just this small thing on top of this large animal and you are convincing it to be precise,” Deal said. “In a rowing shell, you are both the rider and the horse. You have to put in the energy and the power while keeping yourself in check and relaxed.”

Other athletes who tend to make smooth transitions to rowing include swimmers, gymnasts and dancers, according to Deal.

“These are all people who are in sports where a lot of power is involved along with full-body precision,” she said. “There just aren’t many sports as intricate and demanding as rowing that you can do for anywhere near as long.”

Deal believes a lot of injuries come from asymmetrical movement.

“In a rowing shell, if properly trained, you’re working from a stable platform that engages the core,” she said.

Another appeal for Masters rowers is the focus on breathing and heart rate.

“Rowers benefit from controlled breathing in a 3-to-1 rhythm, which is exactly what they teach in meditation,” she said. “When everyone is rowing together, it almost feels like the boat is breathing.”

In the same way that meditation is about being “present,” Deal learned from her father that in sports, all that matters is what is happening at any particular moment.

“Rowing teaches us to get rid of the extraneous signals. We can’t think about five strokes ago or five strokes from now and expect to take a good stroke in the middle. You only have this one stroke right now.”

Growing up around the many Olympic track & field athletes who have passed through Eugene over the years taught Deal the benefits of a measured approach to competition that transfers well to Masters rowing.

“I grew up around people who believed they could do anything and then felt obligated to do everything,” Deal said. “In the end, though, you learn to admit to yourself that small, beautiful goals are also sometimes worthwhile. I enjoy coaching Masters because rowing is a sport they can do for their whole lives.”

So why coach on Vashon when some of the best rowing in the world is across the water in Seattle?

“People here have chosen to live a more thoughtful, slower-paced life, which I love,” Deal said. “Vashon is Eugene with a moat. It’s smaller but there’s a very high concentration of good things.”

Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in Sports

Island rowers claim victories off the water

US Rowing held their virtual National Youth Championships in lieu of their annual on-water regatta.

Pictured: A Mercer Island High School swimmer competes in fall 2019. Washington Interscholastic Activities Association recently announced the girls swim and dive season will be moved to “Season 3,” which begins March 1. File photo
WIAA gives schools option to delay start of prep sports until December

An updated plan moves girls swimming to Season 3 and makes fall cross country an alternate season.

No-show season: WIAA announces cancellation of spring sports, activities

Due to the school closure extension, the cancellation includes all practices, competitions, tournaments and championships, WIAA says.

There’s still hope for spring sports, WIAA announces

Washington Interscholastic Activities Association making contingency plans for high school sports competitions after extension of stay home order.

The WIAA announced Wednesday that if schools reopen at the conclusion of the six-week statewide shutdown ordered last week by Gov. Jay Inslee, then the state championships will go on as planned. (WIAA photo)
WIAA still hoping to hold state championships in May

But if the school shutdown extends past April 24, those championships could be in jeopardy.

Updated: Athletics to continue despite coronavirus threat

School district superintendent said for now games will continue as scheduled; players, coaches react

Ryan Krug Vashon cup soccer match held

The game raised over $2,500 this year.

Pirates season ends at playoffs

The Pirates, winning most of their games this season, lost to Meridian High School

‘Leaving on a high note’: Vashon wrestlers place 11th at state tourney

“It was all thanks to our coaches who believed in us and pushed us to outwork our opponents.”

Boys basketball team heads to playoffs

“We anticipated a close game and the team’s mind was set just right to win.”

Vashon Seals coach says she is stepping down

You could say Lisa MacLeod knows what it’s like to be in… Continue reading

Vashon wins regional championship

Nine athletes are headed to the upcoming state tournament, the largest of its kind of the year.