PHS Alumna Verlinde Feeling at Home On Mercer Lake As PU Women’s Lightweight Crew Goes for IRA Repeat
FAMILIAR WATERS: Nathalie Verlinde, far left, competes in the bow seat as the Princeton University lightweight women’s varsity 8 churns through the water in a race this spring. Sophomore Verlinde, a Princeton High alumni, will be looking to help the Tiger top boat repeat as national champions when it competes in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) championships from June 3-5 on Mercer Lake. During her high school career, Verlinde competed on Mercer Lake as a member of the Princeton National Rowing Association (PNRA) Mercer Junior rowing program. (Photo by Row2K, provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)
By Justin Feil
Nathalie Verlinde feels at home on Mercer Lake, where she will try to help the Princeton University lightweight women’s varsity 8 boat repeat as national champions June 3-5 at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) championships.
Verlinde graduated from Princeton High and started rowing for the Princeton National Rowing Association (PNRA) Mercer Junior rowing program. as a high school freshman. The Mercer Juniors train on Mercer Lake, and last year her high school teammates came out to see her Tigers team win the national title in a field reduced to two by the COVID-19 pandemic. Princeton won by more than 26 seconds over Wisconsin for its first national crown since 2003.
Now a sophomore, Verlinde and Princeton will face a full field as it tries to cap a perfect season. The Tiger top boat has not been beaten this season, as it won another gold at the Dad Vail Championships in Philadelphia on May 14 to follow up an important win at Eastern Sprints in Worcester, Mass., on May 1.
“It was great,” said Verlinde of the Easterns win. “It was our biggest race so far. It was really nice to have a chance to compete against all the big teams on the East Coast for the first time in two years for the program. It was really exciting to be lined up against teams we hadn’t seen before and to put forward our best foot. I think we were really proud of our performance across all the events.”
Verlinde, who rows in the bow seat, is part of the returning group that has pushed the Tigers to No. 1 in the country. While last year had limited competitions as well as few boats to row against, it was an important step to Verlinde moving up to the college level.
“Last year the one thing that we did have was a really great incoming class and some senior leaders who were really driven to have a great last year despite COVID,” said Verlinde.
“I think it served as a really good time for us to integrate our newer rowers and recruits into the boats and get used to rowing with one another and competing together. I’m really glad I got to meet the seniors that graduated last year because I think they’ve inspired my commitment to the team and the sport as well. It was definitely still a valuable experience to have those races under our belt and all of that time practicing together before coming into this year.”
That experience enabled Verlinde and her teammates to pick up where they left off. Dad Vail was their closest win yet — by two seconds over Georgetown — but Princeton has been dominant this season even though the competition has been more robust.
“I do think it’s scary to have this much competition and not know where the programs are after not competing against them for a while,” said Verlinde, who helped the boat clock a time of 6:20.59 at Dad Vail with the Hoyas coming in at 6:22.64.
“The two things we’ve been doing is remembering as long as we’re working as hard as we can to improve as a boat and be the best boat we can be, there’s not much more we can do and there’s not much other boats can do to beat you if you have strong athletes working their hardest every day. Also, I do think the program showed a lot of strength last year just being able to compete and I think other teams have had to come back from that a bit more after COVID and had to rebuild in a way we haven’t had to just because we had so much consistency and strength on the team through COVID. We certainly benefited from that motivation and that consistency through COVID, but it has been a new challenge to navigate having all the teams back on the race course.”
The consistency in the boat includes Verlinde. Princeton had to replace three rowers and its coxswain from last year’s national title boat. Verlinde was able to step right into last year’s top varsity boat as a freshman and has maintained her spot this year, even with a few teammates returning from gap years.
“I was really lucky and am still lucky to be on that boat,” said Verlinde. “I think it was really exciting. I love being bow seat and feeling the energy of all the girls in front of me. It’s great being a younger member of the boat and having all the guidance of the older rowers who have been competing at this level for a long time and have tips on how to navigate that and college life and everything else. I couldn’t be more grateful to have been a part of the 1V as an underclassman.”
Verlinde got her start rowing as a freshman at PHS. She had done other sports, but either hadn’t enjoyed them as much or gotten injured running. Her mother started rowing with the Carnegie Master’s Program when Verlinde was finishing middle school and suggested that her daughter try it. It wasn’t love at first sight, but Verlinde stayed with it and enjoyed four years of rowing with Mercer Juniors before coming to Princeton University.
“It’s certainly a benefit to get used to that training load and doing a cardio and fitness based sport,” said Verlinde. “That’s been an advantage. We have people, like Kasey (Shashaty) in our double, who started rowing in college and has been doing an incredible job. It does happen that you have strong athletes come in college even and learn how to do it.”
Having experience rowing was a big advantage for Verlinde. College has been a step up in every way for her, and being a part of the team has helped her find her way.
“It’s an amazing team,” said Verlinde. “It’s a really good group of motivated, driven athletes who are also navigating the Princeton life. Especially last year during COVID, it was nice to have one thing that was consistently in-person and outside and with other people. Coming down to the boathouse has been the one source of stability and socialization through all the changes in COVID and courses and everything involved in college life. It’s a really valuable time to just clear my head of all the academic work and stresses and focus on making the boat feel good and enjoying the lake. It’s been a really valuable experience getting to know everyone on the team and getting to see how capable and driven they are as well.”
Verlinde was part of a class that came to Princeton in the midst of the pandemic. Their first semester was not on campus, yet they tried to find meaningful experiences. Winning a national title culminated a year that was unpredictable in a lot of ways.
“A part of that is COVID, a part of that is experiencing college for the first time,” said Verlinde. “It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve certainly gotten a lot of new experiences out of it. I think some parts of it have been more challenging than I expected and other parts have been more manageable than I expected. Transitioning to college is never easy, but the team has certainly been a great support system, classes as difficult as they are with other friends and students at your side are usually manageable and you get a lot out of them, and I think I’ve had a lot of fun being a part of the community and exploring all the opportunities that it has. I don’t know what I expected coming into college. I think I was open to a lot of possibilities, but I’m pretty happy with my last two years but they’ve gone by really fast and it’s hard to think I’m already halfway.”
Having declared as a neuroscience major, Verlinde will spend the next two years focusing on the decision to go to med school or into research. Her main focus now after the conclusion of final exams is training to be ready for nationals and the chance to defend the crown against a full field in front of her hometown fans.
“I think it’s really exciting; obviously it also makes everyone a little bit nervous,” said Verlinde. “I think as long as we keep on this track of being really focused and consistent and working hard, we’ll get everything we can out of the nationals experience. All of us are pretty excited to put behind finals and the stresses of school and just focus on practicing and continuing to make the little improvements in our boat that will make it a little faster and hopefully stay ahead of the field.”