This time last year, Penn’s heavyweight rowing team was in Sacramento, Calif., closing out its season at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championships. But this June, the team is scattered across the globe, finding ways to train remotely to return, hopefully, to the water in the fall.
The Quakers competed in three regattas during the 2019 fall season. Penn’s heavyweights took sixth place in the Championship Fours division at the Head of the Charles, and earned second overall for the Championship Eights at the Head of the Schuylkill. In their final race of the fall at the Princeton Chase, the Red and Blue finished tenth in a field of fifty boats in the Varsity Heavyweight Eights division.
The team was in the middle of its spring break training camp, just weeks away from the Stanford Invitational, when they received news of their canceled season.
“We just had had an amazing practice. Everyone was in very high spirits, everything was going very well,” captain Alex Ridenour said. “We were very excited for the season because of how things were going. It was probably the best season we’ve been having, at least that I’ve been here, in my four years. And we got off the water, bantering a little bit, doing a little post-row debrief, and the coaches were on their phones and they were reading the email from Amy Gutmann, and that’s when we got the news.”
Ridenour will return for a fifth year to compete for the Quakers, but for some of his teammates, the email brought the abrupt end of their collegiate rowing careers. The team was able to expedite its traditional senior celebrations, organizing a final dinner with its coaches to honor the graduating class.
For the returning athletes, their attention now turns to finding ways to maintain their fitness level ahead of getting back on the water. To motivate themselves, some Quakers compete in virtual regattas by submitting scores achieved on an ergometer, an indoor rowing machine. Others use apps to compare running or biking workouts.
“The first thing that I did was I made a little collaborative spreadsheet, so that everyone could record what we’re doing, and we made it a little bit of a competition as well, like who could do the most meters on the ergometer type of thing, and there will probably be a little prize at the end for whoever gets that achievement,” Ridenour said.
With social distancing rules temporarily shutting down rowing clubs and fitness centers, some Quakers struggle to access weight equipment or ergometers. The team has instead depended on the creativity of the coaching staff to design workouts around these restrictions.
“The coaching staff, and Pat, who is our weight-training coach, have been very, very diligent with providing us all the necessary substitutes or resources for workouts that any of us could possibly need,” Ridenour said. “They’ve been very, very much available for us, which has been absolutely fantastic. So every week, we get a new schedule from Pat, like ‘here’s what you can do, you don’t even need any weights for this type of thing. It’s all calisthenics.’”
The Ivy League’s cancellation also abbreviated head coach Bryan Volpenhein’s first season with Penn. Volpenhein came to the Quakers from coaching the San Diego Rowing Club men’s varsity program, and also boasts experience as both a coach and as an Olympic Gold Medalist.
Prior to their season’s untimely end, the Red and Blue had been looking forward to building on their strong fall performance and showcasing their growth under Volpenhein.
“It’s a shame that we weren't able to show what coach Volpenhein has done for us, but we’ll have other opportunities in the future, and he’s definitely remained calm,” Ridenour said. “He’s handled it very, very well, and his ability to be that stable, I think, has been very helpful for our team.”
Like Volpenhein, the rising sophomores will have to wait until next March for their first taste of a spring regatta with Penn, but that shouldn’t be an issue for the talented class.
“[The rising sophomores] are driven guys,” Ridenour said. “I don’t think that they’ll let this affect their performance. I think that they’ll manage to bounce back. It is a shame that they weren’t able to race with the senior class to get some of that feeling, but there are plenty of guys on the team that are more than capable of stepping up, and I know that they absolutely will.”
With coronavirus restrictions starting to relax in parts of the world, some Quakers may be returning to the water sooner rather than later. The fate of fall athletics is still up in the air, but the Red and Blue are doing all that they can to remain positive, stay connected, and maintain their top form.