2013 USC Women's Rowing Season Outlook
April 4, 2013
By Emily Leibert
LOS ANGELES - Last year, the USC women's rowing team established itself as a force to be reckoned with. By the end of the 2012 season, the Women of Troy had secured the prestigious Jessop-Whittier Cup at the San Diego Crew Classic, finished fifth at the Pac-12 Championships, and were selected as one of 16 teams to compete in the 2012 NCAA Division I Rowing Championships; the sixth time in program history that the Trojans have been selected as a team.
Early setbacks at the NCAA championships didn't affect the Trojans as USC's varsity eight recovered to take bronze in the grand final. The second varsity eight and varsity four each won their individual races. The determined Trojans placed sixth overall, just short of tying their school-best performance of fifth place in 2007 and 2011. USC also took second place out of the five competing Pac-12 schools. Seniors Lenka Vrecnikova and Helen Tinkus and sophomore Vineta Moca walked away from the 2012 season with All-American honors to give the program its 23rd All-America certificate.
Considering the outstanding team and individual accomplishments of 2012, the bar is set incredibly high for the upcoming season. In the CRCA/USRowing Preseason Coaches Poll, USC was ranked No. 4 in the nation. The Trojans stand behind only three of the nation's perennial top teams: Virginia, California, and Princeton.
This year, the Trojans face a unique set of circumstances. While the 2012 team enjoyed an even spread of reliable chemistry and experienced athletes, the new squad is equally divided between returning rowers and young, talented recruits. With the loss of several of last year's star rowers including Vrecnikova, Anna Wierzbowska, and Tinkus, the Trojans will have to challenge themselves both mentally and physically to fill in the gaps and prosper with new, dynamic lineups.
10th-year head coach Zenon Babraj is confident that this team may be even stronger than his 2012 squad.
"We have a very strong, mixed team this year--maybe even stronger than last year," said Babraj. "The season looks very promising at this point, but I think it'll take a few early races to really develop and test out the younger rowers."
USC's elite young recruits not only hold potential for the future of the rowing program as a whole, but are also expected to perform well in the immediate, upcoming season. Though their technique is still a little rough around the edges, international freshmen Madara Strautmane of Latvia and Keret Einaste of Estonia both hold great potential in physical strength
Among USC's American recruits, Deirdre Fitzpatrick,is a former silver medalist in the American Junior Championships. Despite an injury in the fall, she is predicted to have a significant impact on the team, this year.
"[Deirdre] is a very talented, young athlete, and I'm really counting on her to develop for the future," said Babraj.
Krisztina Gyimes, a sophomore from Hungary, is one of the Trojans' most notable additions. With the team's top ergometer score and international experience in the U23 World Championships, where she placed seventh in a single scull, Gyimes is one of the most powerful forces in the first boat. Her arrival stood out as a key midyear moment and turned any of the team's lineup predictions upside-down.
Though USC's incoming class may turn heads, the Trojans are fortunate to see the return of several junior and senior star rowers. From last year's varsity eight, talented junior All-American Vineta Moca will return to the stroke position, and junior Jelena Miladinovic who filled the seventh seat in the top boat, will also return to the team. Rounding out the junior class are Erica Christianson, Kajsa Olsson, Rebecca Shaffer, and Madelyn Walters.
After training for the 2012 Olympic Games, seniors Ivana Filipovic and Iskra Angelova will both return to fill port positions in USC's lineup. Marlena Admaska will also return for her senior year on the team in the port position. Melanie Grindle returns as one of the team captains after rowing from the bow seat of the varsity eight boat during the 2012 season. Other returning seniors include coxswains Jennah Blau and Tanya Ouyang, Hannah Bowen, Caroline Sederowsky, Vanessa Tyson, and Jelena Zelenovic.
"These girls were in training last year," said Babraj. "and they are in good shape, but they're also coming back with unfinished business. They're hungry for success, this year, and this will help motivate the younger rowers."
Coming off spring training, the team's most prominent strengths are the physiological potential of the recruits and the experience and wisdom of the senior athletes. Babraj hopes to create a healthy tension between the two groups at the start of the season in order to bring up the speed in each boat.
The loss of several key rowers from the 2012 season has left empty seats in both of USC's top boats, and replacing those athletes is certainly a huge obstacle. Most notably, the Trojans lost Vrecnikova who rowed from the sixth seat in the top varsity boat, and Anna Wierzbowska who rowed the fourth seat and had one of the highest ergometer scores on the team. The Trojans also lost Magda Janicka, the fifth seat in the first boat and All-American Tinkus.
"One of the biggest challenges, this year, is rebuilding the first boat because we lost the middle four of the eight," says Babraj. "We have the talent and the power, but the technical aspects in the varsity eight still needs to improve. The other boats have been rowing with each other for two years, but for the top boat, the chemistry will need time to click."
With the start of the season approaching, Babraj is still working on finding the right lineups. Now that the general preparatory period has passed and the rowers have moved on to specialized training, the intensity of competition for seats in each boat increases enormously. Though the first boat is close to being set with only a few details to be finalized, the lineup for both the second boat and the varsity four is in flux.
"At this point, some of our athletes are developing faster than others," said Babraj. "and because of the size of the freshman class, the lineups are changing all the time. It will take the first part of the season to really cement the structure for each boat, and we have to keep our athletes on their toes."
The most competitive seats, this year, are the stroke and the bow position in the varsity eight. Currently, Moca is the incumbent stroke and will start the season in that position in San Diego, though the position is always subject to change. The first boat will likely be occupied by returning athletes including Filipovic, Angelova, Admaska, and Grindle. Babraj notes that recruits like Fitzpatrick and Gyimes may also take seats in the first boat, depending on how the younger athletes react under pressure.
Senior cox Blau acts as the motivator for the team amidst the unpredictability and fluency of the lineups. Following in the footsteps of last year's Wierzbowska and Tinkus, Blau works to fire up the team before they get on the water. Though Babraj believes some of the younger athletes may step up later in the season, most of the recruits still look to the seniors for motivation as they set the tone for the entire team.
Grindle--the coaches' chosen captain--and Turner--the team's elected captain--set the standard for all of the rowers and challenge the younger athletes to apply themselves in workouts, as well as on the water. Both former walk-ons, the two captains exemplify the value of hard work and dedication.
Babraj describes Grindle as "your dream college athlete." After walking on during her first year and rowing in a novice boat, Grindle was moved to a varsity four her second year and helped her boat win at the San Diego Crew Classic. That same four eventually ranked third in the nation.
"She has the whole package," said Babraj. "The coaches decided we wanted her to be captain because she represents everything we would like the USC rowing program to be."
Turner, another success story, learned how to row with the novice boat as a freshman and was placed in the seventh seat of the second varsity eight by the spring of her first year. That boat was ranked seventh in the country by the end of the 2012 season.
"[Turner] is very young, and she's a real athlete," said Babraj. "This year, I think she will start in the second boat, but we will see how the season unfolds."
In one decade, the USC rowing program has made huge leaps. The Trojans have qualified for the NCAA championships as a team for four consecutive years and have been consistently ranked in the top 10 in the nation.
"I think that the team has gained a lot of respect," said Babraj. "We've had an easier time recruiting athletes. We've stabilized and created this environment that breeds high performance. Now, we're just waiting for the few stars who will take us over the top."
The Trojans enjoyed a successful scrimmage against San Diego State to open the spring season, but will face their first official test of the season at the 40th San Diego Crew Classic, April 6-7, in San Diego. USC's next competition will be at the Pac-12 Challenge (April 20-12) in Gold River, Calif. The Trojans will face crosstown rival UCLA in a dual in Marina Del Rey, Calif. on May 6. USC takes on the field at the Pac-12 Championships in Gold River, Calif. on May 19, and if the Trojans qualify for the NCAA Championships, they will head out to Indianapolis, Ind., at the end of May.
USC's early emphasis will be placed on succeeding within the Pac-12. Though ranked above Washington, the Huskies have always proven to be a tough match-up for USC, and the Trojans will need to keep their strength and intensity up in order to maintain their ranking. This year, UCLA also has a strong team and will be competing in the U23 World Championships. Among the rest of the West Coast schools, Stanford has secured a talented recruiting class, and Babraj believes Washington State will have a strong crew as well.
The Trojans' goal for the 2013 season is to qualify for the NCAA Championships for a seventh time in program history and surpass the accomplishments of the 2012 season.
"Last year, we were fast at the beginning and kept an even pace," said Babraj. "This year, I am focusing on peaking towards the end of the season and building our speed around May. We are constantly trying to set the bar higher, and I think the 2013 team has a great chance of surpassing expectations."