Erin Reelick was originally on the outside looking in this spring when it came to the U.S. U-23 rowing program despite emerging as a star for the Princeton University women’s open squad.
“I was initially wait-listed,” said Reelick, who made the varsity 8 as a freshman and helped the boat place second at the 2013 NCAA championships.
“There was one big camp for the 8, 4, pair, and quad. I was not one of the 18 or 19 invited.”
But after helping the Princeton varsity 8 win the Ivy League championship this spring in her sophomore campaign, Reelick got her chance to try out for the U.S. team.
“After the Ivy regatta, I got an e-mail from the coach asking me if I wanted to come out and I said of course,” said Reelick.
Once in the training camp, Reelick focused on giving her best everyday.
“Going into it was a little tough, I was the last person invited,” said Reelick. “I had the mentality of just trying to get through each day. A few of the other girls felt that way and that helped.”
Reelick got through the camp and ended up getting named to both the U.S. 4- and 8+. She went on to help the U.S. earn gold in both events last month at the World Rowing U-23 Championships in Varese, Italy.
“I never expected to make it there and we were able to pull it off,” said Reelick.
“It was such an amazing experience as a whole, meeting different people and rowing for a different coach.”
Reelick’s rowing experience has been intertwined with her older sister Kelsey, who graduated from Princeton this June after starring for the Tiger women’s program.
Following in her sister’s footsteps, Reelick took up the sport as a sophomore in high school although it wasn’t love at first sight.
“It wasn’t really huge fun for me as a sophomore, I still liked other sports more,” said Reelick, a native of Brookfield, Conn. who also played basketball and soccer.
“I became captivated with rowing in my junior year. The fact that it combines technical emphasis with being in top physical shape kept me mentally into it.”
When it came to rowing in college, Reelick was influenced by her older sister’s example.
“I was considering Princeton, Harvard, and Yale,” said Reelick. “My sister played a big role, the idea of her being there was a plus. I had a campus overnight visit and I met Lori (Princeton head coach Lori Dauphiny) and the girls and I liked the dynamic in the boathouse.”
Dealing with the new dynamic of college as a freshman proved to be a challenge for Reelick.
“To be honest, balancing everything, school, rowing, and social life was a big change,” said Reelick.
“The pure volume of workload increased in every area. I struggled a little bit in the fall to get my priorities straight. I was helped by Kelsey on prioritizing.”
By the spring, Reelick was on the varsity 8, helping it to gold in the Ivy regatta and silver at the NCAAs.
“It was pretty amazing to row with those seniors, they were all amazing athletes,” said Reelick. “It was really fun being along for the ride
As a sophomore, Reelick had a smoother ride. “I was not the confused, scared freshman,” said Reelick.
“I had been there and done that and it was let’s do better. I knew what to expect and that made the year easier.”
Things didn’t come easy for the varsity 8, though, as the boat lost its first two races of the spring before going on a late-season run that saw it win its last four regular season races and then place first at the Ivy regatta.
“I think we definitely made progress,” said Reelick. “My reaction at the beginning was that the boat was not quite as fast as last year. We made huge improvements throughout. After the first dual races, we had put things in perspective. We realized that we had to work our butts off all spring.”
The spring ended on a bit of a down note as the Tigers failed to qualify for the NCAA grand final. Princeton did rebound from that setback to win the B final and place seventh overall in the country.
“The NCAA semis was very disappointing,” said Reelick, reflecting on the race which saw the Tigers take fourth, one place away from earning a spot in the grand final.
“Lori played a big part in how we did in the B final. She said that was disappointing but let’s come back tomorrow and crush it and we did. It was a good way to go out, especially for the seniors.”
This summer, Reelick wasn’t sure if the U.S. boats were going to crush it in Italy.
“The 8 was the priority boat; the 4 didn’t practice as much as the 8,” said Reelick.
“There was a lot of pressure on the 8 because of performance in past years. We didn’t feel we were quite ready. We dedicated a couple of days just to the 8 and then we had a change in the lineup and a new girl was going to stroke. That made it a little nerve-wracking.”
After a strong effort in its heat, the 4 rode a strong start in the final to earn gold.
“It was one of those moments where I was holding my breath and then settling into a rhythm,” said Reelick, who rowed from the stroke seat in the coxless boat.
“We got up and held the lead. I was waiting for the other boats to make a recovery. We wanted to keep chugging along, I was really expecting one of the other boats to come back. We did a really good job of staying ahead and the amount of time we had was enough. At 250 meters to go, I remember New Zealand coming up, they had an amazing sprint.”
While the win in the 4 was heartening, Reelick was concerned that the effort could sap the 8 since half the boat was involved in both events.
“It gave me confidence but hoped we didn’t spend everything on the 4,” said Reelick. “The training was brutal and that prepared us well for those four races. The girls in the other 8s hadn’t raced since Thursday.”
Following a similar script to the 4, the 8 charged into an early lead and held on for victory.
“At 1,000 meters, our cox made a call for fresh legs; the race announcer was saying we didn’t have fresh legs,” said Reelick. “The 8 race was pretty similar to the 4; we got up at the start and held them off.”
For Reelick, the magnitude of her racing achievement took a while to process. “I was in shock actually,” said Reelick. “It didn’t quite hit me that I had double gold until few hours later.”
Turning her focus to her junior season at Princeton, Reelick believes the Tigers have what it takes to go for gold.
“I think we have the potential to be a pretty fast boat,” said Reelick. “We have a good group of girls coming back. We have a cool group of freshmen coming in who could really help us. We learned from last year. The goal is the NCAAs; we will never forget that race.”