The Vashon Island Rowing Club saw one of its current juniors and an alum compete at the World Rowing Junior Championships — both the U23s and U19s — this summer. And while both represented themselves, the club and the island with grace, maturity and strength in the face of adversity, these are two very different stories with the end results ultimately landing these athletes at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The Beachcomber last reported that Jacob Plihal, a VIRC junior crew alumnus who is about to start his senior year at Northeastern University in Boston, was in Cologne, Germany, training for the U23 World Rowing Championships and representing the U.S. in the men’s quad. According to Plihal, the night before the crew was to fly to Bulgaria, one of his boat mates sustained significant burn injuries at a post-practice barbecue and was taken to the hospital. The burns were severe enough that the teammate was unable to continue rowing, and he was flown back to the U.S. for further treatment and to recover. With no spare to take his place, the three remaining quad members made the trip to Bulgaria anyway. Plihal said that they “borrowed” a lightweight rower — who had rowed in Rio at last summer’s Olympics — for the empty spot so that they could at least get out on the water and practice while their coach was busy looking for someone to replace the injured teammate. Found someone he did, though Plihal noted that they were only able to get in about four or five practices with the new crew member before the heats started for the championships.
“I think we did pretty well, considering,” he said, “even though we ended up on the lower end of the spectrum overall.”
The quad ended up in last place in its event in Plovidiv, Bulgaria, the weekend of July 22 and 23.
“It’s disappointing, but you just deal with it,” the 6-foot 10-inch Plihal added.
One very good thing to come out of the experience for this humble giant was a renewed passion for sculling — something Plihal has had little opportunity to do since starting college, as collegiate rowing is almost exclusively sweep rowing. Sculling has one rower using two oars, while sweeping has one rower using a single oar.
“One thing I do know is that I’d really like to keep sculling,” Plihal explained. “Maybe I’ll give it a shot in a double or the single next year, but I really enjoyed it and had a lot of fun despite our results. College rowing can be tough and demoralizing, so it was just nice to enjoy rowing again.”
On the U19 side of things, we last reported that current VIRC junior Riley Lynch had just been selected to be in the women’s four, representing the U.S. at the World Rowing Junior Championships in Trakai, Lithuania.
Lynch spent the better part of six weeks after her bronze-medal performance in the pair at USRowing Junior National Championships in June, in Connecticut and New Jersey at selection camp, hoping — and working hard — to make the team.
“It was such a big shock, how much work we were doing,” Lynch said of the experience. “I have never done anything like that before. I was exhausted every day.”
Lynch added that the exhaustion wasn’t just physical.
“I started to doubt myself, and it was hard not to let it get the better of me sometimes,” she noted about the psychological toll of the intense competition for a spot on the team.
But Lynch’s perseverance and hard work paid off with a hard-earned spot in the boat that has been to the podium at the U19s every year since 2010.
While acknowledging that the pressure to perform was also more intense than anything she’s experienced before, she said international-level competition was a mind game.
“It was hard not to let it mess with my head a bit, but I came to a point in each race where I just realized that I’d done it before. I push myself as hard as I can, and it’s really no different whether I’m at home, in New Jersey or in Lithuania with a giant castle at the end of the course.”
Lynch’s boat continued its podium streak with a bronze medal finish on Aug. 6, and there were even some fans from home there to see it. VIRC assistant coach Tom Kicinski and junior crew alumni Forrest and Virginia Miller made a side trip to see Lynch race from an exchange visit the VIRC junior crew was on in Germany.
Lynch said that despite the fact that it was one of the most difficult things she’s ever done, it was “100 percent worth it.”
Next up for Lynch is a trip to China in late September, as VIRC has been invited to send a boat to the Royal Canal Open Regatta in Beijing.
“That was a surprise,” she said of having to fly across the world again so soon, “but really cool. It’s something we’ve never done before.”
— Sarah Low