San Diego Rowing Club brings generations together to win national championship

The San Diego Rowing Club left the competition in their wake at the U.S. Masters National Rowing Championships in Camden, N.J., taking the championship in a hard-fought effort over three days of racing Aug. 13-16.

“We knew it was going to take all of us, and to see everyone step up and sacrifice, to make the commitment, was special,” said Donna St. Aubin-Vehar, a team member from Carmel Valley. “We were all invested with one goal in mind: to win that title.”

The team included several rowers from the Carmel Valley, Del Mar and surrounding coastal areas, including St. Aubin-Vehar, Pauline Gills, Julie Schaefer, Anne Fontanessi, Laura Colban, Jan DeJong, Willard Foss, Wayne Saville, Treacy Summer and Julia Ramsay, their 14-year-old coxswain from Carmel Valley.

The team battled heat and humidity, bug bites, close finishes and more than 150 clubs with 2,000 entries, some of them ex-Olympians and alumni from storied East Coast rowing clubs. Coach Pattie Pinkerton created a “magically strategized” line-up of combinations to take home the huge all-around trophy and a haul of individual medals.

“We kind of crushed it,” said Julia, a freshman at Torrey Pines High, who was leading boats with Masters rowers ages 40 through 70.

All summer, Julia carpooled to 5 a.m. practices with St. Aubin-Vehar, the elder rower marveling that the young teen would be waiting on the curb at 4:15 a.m., ready to go.

“She never missed a practice,” St. Aubin-Vehar said. “She was willing to come out every day and take any assignment given to her.”

“I get to do something that I love, I’ll wake up anytime to do rowing,” Julia said.

Rowing is a sport with lots of opportunities for young athletes, but the older age group is relishing the chance to get out and compete.

“We have a lot of older women that row,” said Pauline Gillis of Del Mar, who first tried the sport 18 years ago when she was 54 years old as a way to exercise with her girlfriends.

While others dropped out along the way, Gillis never got off the water, moving from ZLAC Rowing Club on Mission Bay to the fun, competitive camaraderie of SDRC.

“We are both part of a group of women who could never participate in team sports prior to Title IX,” said St. Aubin-Vehar, referring to the 1972 law that prohibited gender discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. She had never been a part of a team or had a coach until she joined SDRC three years ago.

A windsurfer, she had always loved any sport on the water.

“I tried rowing and it was quite a challenge in the beginning. I knew not at all what to do, but I just stayed with it,” said St. Aubin-Vehar, 62. “I joined the Carmel Valley SDRC carpool and they brought me along, as women do. We help each other and support each other.”

Suddenly, a woman who had never been a part of the team was deeply competitive, racing in about five competitions a year. St. Aubin-Vehar also now sits on the SDRC board. The club has its first-ever female president and first female captain since it was founded in 1891.

“I just thought it was so great, I loved it. It’s fun to do all the events and travel and compete and win,” said St. Aubin-Vehar. “It just became a part of my lifestyle ... what a great way to experience retirement.”

Gillis agreed.

“Some people have left soccer or cycling because it has become too dangerous — they can’t afford to fall,” she said. “Rowing is actually pretty safe. It’s really a full-body exercise.”

One would think the arms would be where a rower would be strongest, but it’s actually the legs that get strong.

The biggest challenge for rowing is probably the time of day, as they are out on the water training three days a week before the sun comes up.

At practice, they work with Coach Pinkerton, and the rowers can be assigned to a two-person boat, a four-person boat or an eight-person boat. Each boat has a coxswain to navigate, and in many cases this summer and at Nationals, it was Julia.

“I do row sometimes to sharpen up my technique, because I feel like if I’m yelling at people what to do, I should know about it, too,” Julia said. “It’s such a great sport.”

Julia rows on the middle school team at SDRC and has been involved in the sport for only 10 months. Being at the Nationals competition was a huge learning experience for her as her first major race. She admits at times it was “crazy” and stressful.

As a coxswain, she steers the boat, because the rowers have their backs to the course. She also acts as a motivator.

“If everyone has an understanding that they can do it, then we can,” Julia said. “They’re giving all the energy they have into a race. I have to try to know their weak spots or when they get tired to challenge them as much as I can.”

Gillis said the cox is like a cheerleader. Being out on the water can be sobering for the rowers, especially when they get tired or are in pain.

“You just go to their words, and their words are really important and inspirational,” Gillis said. “They are able to get more out of you than you think you can give.”

With Nationals complete, the SDRC team will next compete in the UC San Diego’s Row for the Cure in October and SDRC Fall Classic in November. Several SDRC rowers have their eyes on acceptance into The Head of the Charles, the biggest rowing regatta in the country, held in Boston in October.

Compared with the rich East Coast tradition, rowing is still considered a fairly new sport on the West Coast and the women encouraged people to give it a try. St. Aubin-Vehar said it’s a great way to stay physically fit and maintain stamina and endurance as well as develop friendships.

“It starts with a love of the water and friendship,” Gillis said. “Just get started and find your comfort zone. You can set the bar wherever you want — you can row recreationally or competitively.”

“Not everyone has to be competitive as they are,” Julia said with a smile, nodding to St. Aubin-Vehar and Gillis and their six individual Nationals medals apiece.