PHS Grad Cleary Rolled With Changes, Helping Mercer Boat Take 4th at Nationals
GOING FOURTH: Members of the Princeton National Rowing Association (PNRA)/ Mercer Rowing varsity women’s 8 plus coxswain crew enjoy the moment after placing fourth in the nation at the 2016 US Rowing Youth National Championships last month. Pictured, from left to right, are: senior captain Kate Hickey (Notre Dame High), sophomore Sara Hansen (WW/P-S High), junior Laila Shehab (Hopewell Valley High), senior Caitlin Cleary (Princeton High), senior coxswain Colleen Gillis (Freehold Township High), junior Katie Lustig (Council Rock North), sophomore Bridget Parker (PHS), senior Rachel Mumau (Millstone Township), and sophomore Mia Barkenbush (WW/P-S High).
Although this spring marked Caitlin Cleary’s third year on the top women’s 8 for Princeton National Rowing Association (PNRA)/Mercer Rowing, she had to deal with plenty of change.
After losing several key rowers from the boat that took second at the USA Rowing Youth Nationals in 2015, there were a number of new faces on the crew. In addition, the team had a new coach as Steve Baranoski succeeded Ted Sobolewski, who left Mercer to become associate head coach of men’s rowing at Northeastern.
“We had a lot of turnover, it was definitely a slow progression this spring,” said Cleary, who graduated last month from Princeton High.
“We started out a little shaky and we had a lot more people in and out of the boat. We had more injuries than in the past.”
Continuing to tinker with things, even after winning regionals, the boat ended on a high note, taking fourth at the US Rowing Youth National Championships last month on its home course at Mercer Lake.
“We really pulled it together a few weeks before nationals, we had the lineup but we switched the seats around and that made a huge difference,” said Cleary.
“We had all of our people at regionals but we switched the seats around so people were in different positions and it surprisingly made us a lot faster.”
Cleary was in the middle of the changes, ending up in the five seat after rowing from two other spots on the boat.
“I stroked in the beginning of the spring, then I was 6 seat up until we made the last change,” said Cleary.
“I really liked 5 seat a lot. I liked being in the middle of the boat more; I could see what was going on. It worked out well for me and all of us.”
Along with senior captain Kate Hickey, Cleary looked to provide leadership to get the boat to work together.
“We had always been the youngest, even last year because we had a senior heavy boat,” said Cleary.
“It was very different being the oldest ones on our way out. Towards the end of the season, we really bonded as a boat. I felt like the younger girls could gain a lot of knowledge from this experience like Kate and I did when we first made the varsity. We kind of looked to the older girls to see what we should do and how to row.”
Coming down the stretch, the boat was rowing better and better. “There was a solid two-week period right before nationals where we just dropped a lot of time,” said Cleary. “We really just figured it out.”
Being at home for nationals was another plus for the Mercer rowers.
“It was a huge advantage, I think if we had to travel we would have spent a lot more time being tired,” said Cleary.
“We had a very young boat. We had three sophomores and two juniors, it is a lot of young girls and travel is really hard when you are younger.”
The Mercer boat got off to a good start at nationals, taking second in its opening heat, clocking a time of 6:28.940 over the 2,000-meter course, just over three seconds behind Saugatuck, the eventual national champion.
“We had an amazing race in the heat; I think it was the best of the weekend,” said Cleary.
“I don’t think the semis or the final were as good of races for us. If we had one race that was better, it was good that it was the heat, because we got a lot of confidence from that.”
In the final, Mercer came in at 6:36.258 as it took fourth with Saugatuck posting a winning time of 6:29.482.
“I feel that we did as well in the final as we could have, there wasn’t much room for improvement,” asserted Cleary.
“That was a really solid race. I think we totally reached our potential. Medalling is really hard but we were right there, pushing the boats in front of us I was really happy with it and I think everybody else was too, just to be in there and be competitive. Coming in second last year motivated us a lot to do well because we thought we had to prove ourselves all over again, which is always a good mindset to be in.”
Cleary’s experience with Mercer has helped her change her mindset, in and out of the water.
“It has taught me that a huge amount of commitment is what can make your dreams come true, whatever they may be,” said Cleary.
“It has taught me the responsibility you have to the people when you are on a sports team or working with them, whatever the case may be. You want to do as well as you can for them.”
Cleary’s dream of rowing in college came true as she committed to Brown and will be joining its women’s crew team.
“I wanted a really competitive program,” said Cleary, who is competing with the Mercer U-23 program this summer to help prepare her for Brown.
“Success in rowing is what makes me really happy so I wanted that. I just felt like the team at Brown was a really good fit for me. I really like the coaches and their coaching styles. I felt like the school was also a good fit for me because of its stress on academic freedom. As a package, it was great.”