Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 23
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
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(Photo Courtesy of Princeton Crew/Tom Nowak)

MAKING A SPLASH: Princeton University men’s heavyweight rower Blake Parsons, center, helps the Tiger first varsity 8 to a win in a regatta this spring. Parsons, a native of Toronto, Ontario, has gone from an unheralded walk-on as a freshman in 2007 to a mainstay of the Princeton program. He completed his senior campaign last weekend by helping the Princeton first varsity take sixth at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta. Parsons has also competed for Canada’s U-23 national program the last two summers.

Going from Walk-on to PU Heavyweight Star, Parsons Ends Tiger Career With 6th at IRAs

Bill Alden

As a native of Toronto, Ontario, Blake Parsons’ first sporting love was ice hockey.

“It is hard to grow up in Canada and not play hockey; I played in high school and at the A level,” said Parsons, who also dabbled in soccer and rugby.

Parsons’ rise up the hockey ladder stalled and he came to the realization that he was not a college prospect in the sport.

But as a superb student at the Crescent School, Parsons was a quite a prospect in the classroom for colleges in the U.S., getting accepted at Harvard, Princeton, and Penn.

Falling in love with Princeton after a visit to the school, Parsons chose to make Old Nassau his U.S. destination.

Once at college, Parsons got the itch to get involved in athletics. “Barrett LaChance, a recruited lightweight rower, lived in the same dorm and I got to know some of the rowers,” recalled Parsons.

“I got stopped by some of the heavyweight rowers in front of Dillon and they kept asking me if I was playing a sport. When I told them I wasn’t, they said crew was one of the few sports on campus where you could walk on to varsity.”

Parsons took a fateful step and walked on to the rowing team in September 2007. Utilizing his athletic background and diligence, Parsons gradually became a mainstay with the Tiger heavyweight program.

By the end of his sophomore year, he helped a varsity 4 take bronze at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta and made the Canada U-23 national team that summer.

Ascending to the Princeton first varsity 8 as a junior, Parsons helped the Tigers take silver the last two years at the Eastern Sprints.

Last weekend, Parsons culminated his improbable rise into an elite college rower by helping the Princeton first varsity 8 make its first IRA national championship grand final in five years as the Tigers took sixth.

When Parsons first headed down to the Princeton boathouse in mid-September, 2007, he would have trouble imaging himself racing for a national championship.

“I had never done a racing sport; it is different than ball sports or hockey because it comes down to pushing yourself really hard,” said Parsons.

“It was great for me to be training with recruits and to be able to sit right next to them and learn from them. It took some time to get the technique. Once the other guys saw I was going to stick around and that I had potential to move the boat and add speed, they were great. They invited me to extra workouts.”

It took a while for Parsons to learn how to pace himself and harness his speed on the water.

“I was really nervous at the line in my first race in the spring of my freshman year; once the flag went down, I was pulling as long and hard as I could,” said Parsons, noting that he didn’t get the rowing technique down until his sophomore year. “I was contributing the first 750-1000 meters and then I was dead weight.”

It didn’t take long for Parsons to start pulling his weight for the Tigers. He rowed on the third varsity 8 as a freshman and moved up to the second varsity 8 as a sophomore. He experienced a big breakthrough when he competed on a 4 that made the medal stand at the 2009 IRA regatta.

“We came away with a bronze with four sophomores in the boat,” said Parsons. “It showed we had the potential to help bring the program back to where it should be.”

In a move that helped Parsons reach his potential more rapidly, he contacted Tiger alum and Team Canada star Matt Evans about taking a shot at rowing for the Canadian national team.

“Matt was really helpful; he told me how fast I needed to go on ERG to get invited,” added Parsons, who helped the Canadian men’s 4+ take fifth in A final at last summer’s U-23 World Championships.

“I came to camp, thinking they would say come back next year. But the coaches were patient and really encouraged me. It was the first time I had been exposed to a different program. I only knew the Princeton way so it was cool to see a different way of rowing. It has been huge the last two summers, to essentially eat, sleep, and row. Putting that kind of time into something really helps you improve.”

The Tiger heavyweight program showed marked improvement when Greg Hughes took over as head coach in the fall of 2009.

“We knew that something had to change, Greg brought great excitement,” said Parsons.

“We had a shaky dual season but when we silvered at Easterns, everything came together. It was the culmination of the work and improvement. We had been trying to prove we could go fast; we came into Easterns with a lot to prove.”

While Princeton proved a point at the Easterns, it faltered at the IRA regatta three weeks later, sliding to 12th place. That experience gave Parsons and his teammates extra motivation coming into this spring.

“We realize that there was still a lot of work to be done,” said Parsons, who has rowed in the No. 4 seat this spring.

“It is not enough to be there some of the time, you had to be there working hard everyday. We have had good fortune to have had good health this year. This year we have had no injuries and have had just one lineup the whole season.”

Princeton head coach Hughes knows that it has been his good fortune to have Parsons in his program.

“He is a real Princeton kid; he is an exceptional rower who has gone from walk-on to Canada’s national team and he also has the top GPA in mechanical and aerospace engineering department,” said Hughes.

“He has a ton of character; he is a sincere, honest, good kid. He has showed a level of leadership everyday in the way he goes about things.”

For Parsons, taking up rowing has helped him see things differently. “It has been the best part of my Princeton experience; really learning to push myself beyond my comfort zone and trying something new,” asserted Parsons, who will be training with the Canadian national team this summer before starting a job in the fall as a management consultant for Bain and Company in Toronto.

“In the other sports I played I wasn’t the most skilled but I was willing to work. In rowing, if you work hard, you can see the increased speed. You learn how to push yourself and commit yourself.”

And Parsons has found his true sporting love in the process.

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