For years, the Lake Lanier Rowing Club has had a reputation as a great tutoring facility for beginners, though it hasn’t made much of a name for itself in terms of producing competitive champions.
That changed earlier this month at the Southeast Regional Junior Championships at the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue when the club produced its first champion, coming in the Novice 4 event, a 2,000-meter race. The winning team consisted of three Hall County students, including Flowery Branch’s Dominic Lo, 14, Gainesville’s Will Hemphill, 17, and Hyder Hasnan, 14, along with Central Gwinnett’s Graham Rodgers, 16, and Jay Cathcart, 17.
They competed against rowing teams from all of the southeast.
“They’re natural athletes,” club coach Jim Pickens said. “They’re just good kids, and they’re coachable. They’re focused athletes. I’d like to take credit for them myself, but they deserve it because they’ve worked insanely hard.”
Because each team member had less than a year of rowing experience, they competed as novices, going against others with less than a year of experience.
Pickens said the unit quickly adapted to the sport, and by using teamwork, they excelled.
“To do well in rowing you have to be a good team player,” said Pickens. “You’re totally relying on everyone else in order to have a good performance. If one person isn’t doing their job, it’s just not going to work.
“Really, their ability to come together helped them to form a phenomenal team. Their first race was rained out, and they weren’t able to go out there. We didn’t have many races (to prepare for the championships), so they were chomping at the bit to get out there. They pushed themselves and got to their goal, and it was pretty cool.”
Hemphill said the goal was accomplished the good old-fashioned way.
“We put in a lot of hard work,” he said. “We were constantly focusing on all aspects of rowing and making sure our technique was good. Coach Jim makes sure to walk us through it, and the work really paid off in the end.
“You can tell teams that aren’t serious about it because they don’t win.”
Hemphill said he was confident the team would do well at the championships. Just two weeks before, they were competing in an event in Oak Ridge, Tenn., against a lot of the same teams that would be at Southeast Regionals.
They finished in second place, only seconds behind a team from Miami.
Two weeks later, they beat the Miami team.
“It was awesome,” Hemphill said. “It seemed like an unreal dream.”
The Southeast Regional concluded the team’s season and starting next year, they’ll no longer be eligible to compete as novices. They’ll move up to what’s known as varsity status, where the competition is much stiffer.
Varsity racers have anywhere from two to six years experience.
However, if there is an LLRC team that can succeed at the varsity level, Pickens said it’s this one.
“I’ve coached a few hundred junior rowers from Washington D.C. to Georgia, and this team, as a whole, shows probably the most promise of any team,” Pickens said.
Hemphill realizes the challenges he and his teammates will face next season.
“I think it will be good for us to race against faster, more experienced rowers,” Hemphill said. “If you race novices all the time, you’re never going to get better. We need to get (defeat) handed to us a couple of times.”
To what degree of success they’ll achieve next season is yet to be seen, but Pickens is hoping the success they’ve already enjoyed will boost the program to a higher level.
“This win shows we’re beyond just teaching people to row,” Pickens said. “We’re past the newbie stage. We’re now a program that has credibility. Hopefully, this will help us increase our numbers. Right now, we have about 34 kids in the program, which is the largest we’ve ever been.
“That’s an accomplishment, but we’re trying to grow to around 100-200 kids.”