Former NSA student rows to national title

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 22, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

When she moved to Middletown, Del. in 2000, Mary-Carson Saunders could have played the same sports offered at her old school, Nansemond-Suffolk Academy. She could have picked up a net and joined the girls’ lacrosse squad, grabbed a racket to play a little tennis or, as she had during her eighth-grade and final year at NSA, tossed up a round, rubber ball to shoot some hoops.

Instead, Saunders reached for a new piece of sporting equipment – the rowing oar. At the time, she couldn’t have known just how far into the water (and, eventually, the national spotlight) the long, thick chunk of wood would carry her and her teammates.


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&uot;It was so different,&uot; Saunders said of crew rowing. &uot;I’d never even heard of it. It was a great way to be out on the water, which I loved, and it’s such a fun team sport. It was the only sport I’ve ever played where I felt like everyone was actually moving together constantly. The nature of stroke is continuous; if everyone isn’t at the same point, the boat doesn’t move forward, so if everyone isn’t together, you don’t gain speed. It’s perfect as far as team unity goes.&uot;

After watching her older teammates take the top spot at the 2001 Stotesbury Regatta, known as the country’s top high school rowing event, Saunders moved up to varsity competition. For nearly two hours a day, almost year-round, she and her teammates worked out with weights and the school rowing machines (she also ran cross-country to build up endurance).

In 2002, she took her spot as a port oarswoman (one of the rowers on the left side) on the first boat, where the school’s eight best athletes compete (of the 270 girls at St. Andrew’s, 120 row on the crew team). By then, coach Brad Bates knew he had something special.

&uot;One thing I could appreciate is that Mary-Carson has a personality that she, in a very subtle way, makes the other girls in the boat want to become better rowers,&uot; said Bates, who has been coaching the crew crew for 11 years. &uot;It’s not about technique, or about how hard she pulls. But she’s the kind of kid that everyone wants, because people know that when she goes out to practice, it’s important to her. She wants to take advantage of what coach is saying. Not by yelling or criticizing, but by setting an example.&uot; So good was the model set that Saunders’ teammates elected her captain for the 2003-4 season.

She lived up to their hopes for the first eight matches this season, helping her teammates to an undefeated record. But on April 10, the team from Holy Spirit, which had won the 2002-3 Peabody Cup at the Henley Women’s Regatta in England, otherwise known as the world championship of girls rowing, came to town.

Saunders and her teammates knew they were in for a water war. &uot;Our schools have always been rivals,&uot; she said. &uot;We really wanted to beat them.&uot; They came close, finishing the 1500-meter race in 5:02.8 – just six seconds slower than the world’s best.

The Lady Cardinals got another shot a week later, and were edged by three seconds. Then on April 25, they battled the Spirit again at the New Jersey championships, losing by 1.4 seconds

&uot;They were so close that they almost felt like it was a victory,&uot; Bates said. &uot;They just knew that if they were that close at that point in the season, they could get them. They’d gotten inside the heads of the Holy Spirit girls.&uot;

His own ladies could see their own improvement. &uot;With every race,&uot; Saunders said, &uot;we were frustrated, but it was also satisfying knowing that we’d given everything we had in the last race as far as strength went. We could see that we were frustrating them. They knew that we weren’t there to mess around; we were a real threat.&uot;

However, they were running out of chances to prove their ability; Saunders was one of seven seniors on the top boat that would finish their school careers at the 2004 Stotesbury Regatta in Philadelphia on May 14 and 15th.

&uot;Thanks in part to Mary-Carson’s leadership, the girls didn’t get phased down after they lost to Spirit,&uot; Bates said. &uot;I knew that kids like her could take that kind of pressure.&uot;

On the morning of the 14th, Saunders and her teammates loaded their boat into the Schuylkill River, near Philadelphia’s renowned art museum, for the time trials to determine placement.

&uot;We went into the championship with the goal of getting first,&uot; Saunders said. &uot;We were so nervous that we couldn’t really get excited.&uot; Of the 40 boats that competed in the trials, the Lady Cardinals finished second – and guess who had the top spot?

Finally, it was down to the final race. On Sunday afternoon, the St. Andrew’s girls took the water together one final time. They were in lane four, the Spirit in two. With Bates and roughly 5,000 others waiting for them at the finish line, the girls were 1,500 meters from glory.

Just as they had all season, the Lady Cardinals got off to a quick start. However, they were overtaken not only by Spirit, but also by Denis Morris of Montreal. About a fifth of the way to the finish line, Spirit was inching past them, while Morris had a full boat-length lead.

That’s when the St. Andrew’s girls made their Move. In racing jargon, a Move is a short period of increased power in which the stroke rate is increased slightly. &uot;If you do that,&uot; Bates said, &uot;sometimes you can make other teams think they’re done. It’s about mental jockeying. They don’t know if you’re spending yourself or just getting going, and they might get flustered or take bad strokes.&uot;

To an extent, it worked. The Lady Cardinals pulled even with Spirit and got ahead – but Morris still loomed in front of them. At the front of the boat, coxswain (she who yells instructions and encouragement to the rowers) Elizabeth Baer, a Kill Devil Hills native, shouted that time was running out.

&uot;She told us that we had to win,&uot; Saunders said. &uot;For the seniors, it was our last race. Our parents were in the stands, everyone was watching, and we’d worked to hard and come too far to lose.&uot; Still, with 300 meters to go, they were still in second.

That’s when all the years of hard work, dedication, teamwork and camaraderie came to the front. That’s when the team showed the thousands of fans, their coach, the family and friends and themselves why they were among the nation’s greatest.

The Lady Saints sprinted down the final stretch, rowing like the well-oiled machine that they’d practiced as for years. Crossing the finish line, Saunders looked up to see if their goals had become reality.

&uot;One of my teammates yelled that we’d won. Another said that we hadn’t. We all started yelling at the officials.&uot; The team looked toward Bates near the end of the dock, and he held up one finger. With a time of 5:29.05, the girls had beaten Morris by 1.83 seconds, and Spirit by 1.92.

They’d done it. The girls had beaten the best the opposition had to offer, and laid the doubts to rest. They’d put a solid period at the end of the greatest of efforts.

&uot;Everyone started crying,&uot; Saunders said. &uot;We were so tired we couldn’t breathe, so laughing and crying were kind of difficult.&uot;

The girls lined up on the dock, and received their trophy and medals. Then they embraced. &uot;I’d wanted it since freshman year,&uot; Saunders said. &uot;I couldn’t even speak. It was my greatest sports fantasy ever.&uot;

She and her teammates have yet another shot to improve on the fantasy; in mid-June, they’ll head to London to take part in the 2003-4 Henley Women’s Regatta, which St. Andrew’s won in 1997.

&uot;I’m excited, because this school has a great reputation,&uot; Saunders said. &uot;This team has so much potential. The next three weeks are going to bring us more strength and a greater bond, because we know we have so much left to accomplish. I can’t wait.&uot;

After hopefully helping her team to a world title, Saunders will move even farther north, to Maine’s Bates College (perhaps the college of Bates will help her as much as the coach of the same name!). &uot;I only looked at school where I could row,&uot; said Saunders, who plans to study environmental science.&uot;

The coach will miss one of his prized pupils. &uot;The girls all wanted to be like Mary-Carson,&uot; Bates said. &uot;I just hope that that passes on from one class to the next. She left an imprint that’s going to last in this program for many years.&uot;