Milwaukee – The trip south down the Milwaukee River was a breeze for members of the Milwaukee Rowing Club at the beginning of practice late Tuesday afternoon. But the return trip was a different story. With the strong wind coming out of the north, the rowers had to push themselves to the limit.
“It was pretty bad. I was just barely holding on. The wind was just terrible today,” said Hank Wong, a sophomore at Wauwatosa East High School. “But yesterday (Monday) was a lot worse.”
But that’s the way it has been this spring for this group of high school rowers, who are preparing for their most important meet of the season. The 42 members of the rowing team will be competing in the Midwest Scholastic Rowing Championships this weekend on Lake Harsha in Bethel, Ohio, about 30 miles southeast of Cincinnati.
Among the rowers are several from Wauwatosa. The most experienced is Leslie Dess, a junior at Wauwatosa East. She’s in her third year with the Milwaukee team.
“I love it,” Dess said. “It’s truly my passion; I would love to do this in college."
Dess will be the coxswain for the boys eight team.
“I’m the voice of the boat,” she said, describing her position at the front of the boat. “I’m their eyes. I set up the race for them.”
And she enjoys working with the boys team.
“I bond really well with the guys,” Dess said. “I think you have to command a lot of respect with your boat. If you respect your rowers, they’re going to respect you. Sometimes they fool around, but for the most part, I have total confidence in the guys, and I think they have that with me.”
The Milwaukee team, representing several area high schools, will compete in doubles, coxed four and coxed eight races. It will be one of 50 teams from 12 states competing in the event. According to the hosts of the event, approximately 1,800 rowers competed last season.
“We haven’t had a chance to do much this season because of the weather,” coach Peter Helfer said. “But as a group, our team is optimistic about our chances Saturday. We know how tough it’s going to be. I’m hopeful that things are going to work out well.”
The Milwaukee doubles team of Mike Lindberg and Sean Robinson qualified for the national tournament last year. Lindberg is currently a member of the crew team at the University of Wisconsin, and Robinson, from Brookfield, is a senior and will be competing in the coxed fours and eights for the Milwaukee Rowing Club.
For Wong and his rowing teammates, temperatures of around 50 degrees with no breeze would be ideal. But as has been the case this spring nothing has been ideal. The temperature is expected to reach the low 80s Saturday on Lake Harsha.
In many respects, rowing is the ultimate team sport. It starts at the beginning of practice, where each member of the team has to help carry the boat to the water. And that teamwork continues throughout practice.
“I really like the team aspect of the sport,” said John Noonan, a Wauwatosa rower who attends Marquette University High School. “You really have to rely on your teammates, and you can’t let them down. If you give up, your boat is going to suffer. You just got to keep up and do your best.”
Wong said he has benefitted personally from rowing.
“When I first joined, I was completely out of shape, but this has been pretty much life-changing,” Wong said. “The experience of working hard, going out every day, twice a day, is great. It was much different than anything else I’ve ever done.”