June 28, 2023

PHS Alumna Verlinde Overcomes Rib Injury To Help PU Lightweights Excel at IRAs, Henley

PAIR OF ACES: Princeton University women’s lightweight rowers Nathalie Verlinde, right, and Madeline Polubinski are all smiles after they took second in the women’s lightweight pair without coxswain at the Henley Women’s Regatta on the Thames River outside of London, England. Verlinde, a Princeton High alumna, worked through a rib injury this spring to help the Princeton varsity four take first at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta before heading to England for the Henley competition. (Photo provided by Nathalie Verlinde)

By Justin Feil

Nathalie Verlinde’s third year in the Princeton University lightweight women’s rowing program was another championship year.

The Princeton High alumna won a third title at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta on Mercer Lake in early June and reached the championship race in her first trip to the legendary Henley Women’s Regatta weeks later, but those triumphs were preceded by a period of uncertainty after she suffered her first serious injury in college. A stress fracture in her rib left some doubt about Verlinde’s ability to return to championship level, and it made the storybook ending to her junior year at Princeton even more meaningful.

“It was great,” said Verlinde, reflecting on her big spring. “It was the perfect comeback story. I think it was really emotional to be back on the water and contribute to this incredible year that the team has had.”

Verlinde first noticed some discomfort in her shoulder and rib area after returning from Princeton’s winter training camp in Florida. The pain lingered and eventually grew worse. Two days after the Tigers’ first scrimmage, she was diagnosed with the stress fracture that had a recovery time of about six weeks. A couple of days later, a teammate, Claire Brockman, also suffered a rib injury and the two were put on similar recovery plans that included a training plan filled with stationary biking.

“Our coach [Paul Rassam] was convinced we could make it back just in time for nationals and up to shape,” said Verlinde. “Maybe three and half weeks before IRAs, we were back in boats for the first time all season. We had to win our seats back in racing lineups to make it to nationals and then once we were in the four together we only had about three weeks to get up to speed to be ready to race. The IRA race for lanes was kind of my first race of the season and that was pretty nerve-wracking.”

Verlinde had to shake off the rust after not rowing for weeks when she returned. That factor added to the challenge of returning from injury after she had healed.

“Certainly the motion is a little rusty, and our upper body muscles were less strong than usual because we’d been resting them so long,” said Verlinde. “But also a lot of preparation is clicking with a certain lineup and getting used to rowing with other people. Finding our rhythm together with the other two people in our boat was a tricky challenge.”

Verlinde felt more confident as the national championship regatta grew closer. The final preparations that the Tigers did gave her enough practice to get back on track, and she fell back too on prior years of training.

“A week before we went on the water, we did spend some time erging (working on the ergometer rowing machine) together, me and the other girl who was injured, so we could practice timing and syncing up and going through the motions of the stroke together,” said Verlinde. “It’s definitely a different game on the water, and a lot of building confidence is just being on the water in every possible condition. It was scary not to have too much time to do that. But I think we had a lot of confidence in everything before our injury helping us and at least our biking was keeping us fit so it was just a matter of syncing up with everyone else.”

Verlinde went on to help the varsity four of Elena Every, Brockman, Emma Mirrer, and Bonnie Pushner beat MIT by less than one second in 7:28.74 in the grand final at the IRA regatta to earn gold. It was part of a sweep for the Tigers program, who also won the double sculls and the varsity eight.

“It was great to be able to contribute to a boat that hasn’t won a national championship in a really long time,” said Verlinde. “It’s still really competitive because teams like MIT stack their four and have really competitive athletes in the event. I think it worked out well to be in the four in the spring.”

Verlinde was in the varsity eight boat in each of her first two years when they won national titles. Her injury made returning to the top boat difficult, but she made the most of another opportunity that brought her another national crown. She focused on trying to make the four boat after rehabbing her rib injury.

“I was already fighting for a seat in the eight with another girl who’s about equally skilled and experienced,” said Verlinde. “I think coming back from injury, it made more sense for me to be in that four lineup. The eight had been doing spectacularly and been training together for a really long time. The four was still kind of in flux and I had a natural spot there.”

Winning after missing so much time was extra meaningful for Verlinde. Her experience was an important component in bringing the four newfound success at nationals.

“I think the four has always been a really challenging event for us because you have to have a lot of depth to field the best eight in the country and also have the four be competitive with the top fours from other programs,” said Verlinde. “I was really proud of our boat for doing that and having us for the first time have every single boat win at IRAs. It was a great moment.”

The sweep by the Tigers showed the program’s unmatched depth at the national level. Verlinde has seen the program develop each year since she joined it out of PHS.

“The program has seen an incredible rebound, especially since COVID,” said Verlinde. “Our first COVID year, we only had 10 on the team. And in the past two years, we’ve brought a lot of people back from gap years and we’ve had a lot of new recruits come in and we have an incredibly strong team from the eight to the four to the double to the walk-ons who joined us. It’s really exciting to think that we’ve come this far in two years and hopefully we can keep it going. It’s great to be surrounded by so many people that are so committed to being really competitive and just enjoying the whole process.”

The reward for a great season was a trip to England earlier this month to compete in the Henley Women’s Regatta. There, Verlinde and Madeleine Polubinski advanced all the way to the finals in the women’s pair without coxswain and ended up taking second behind the Harvard-Radcliffe boat in the race for the Parkside Trophy.

“It was kind of a surprise,” said Verlinde of reaching the finals. “A bit of it was luck. A bit of it was having the fitness that carried over from IRAs. I think it was fun to have a competitive lineup and show our best foot through most of the racing. I guess it speaks to the level of experience of this team too, because we were very well trained to take a boat we had almost never trained in and give it our best shot. It was cool to see we were competitive even with so little training.”

Put together in a pair, Verlinde and Polubinski had just a few days of training together. Meshing quickly was an achievement in itself.

“A pair has a whole new set of challenges; someone has to steer, which ended up being me,” said Verlinde. “And the boat is much more sensitive to small differences in techniques between people, so it was definitely a challenging transition. We just took it as a fun opportunity to travel somewhere new and compete against a whole new set of people and some old friends. We ended up racing Harvard. It was exciting. It was a fun way to end the season, but it felt more like a reward and a new adventure than a continuation and increase in fitness from IRAs. IRAs was really our peak and then we were just trying to hold that level of intensity going into Henleys.”

It was Verlinde’s first opportunity to compete at Henley. Princeton, like all NCAA sports, can take an international trip once every four years. It made sense coming off a strong season.

“It was a great experience,” said Verlinde. “It’s much more common to be involved in rowing in England and it’s a much bigger part of the culture. Seeing so many programs at every level, it also doesn’t end with collegiate rowing, we were racing against graduate students and there were people in their 20s that were still interested in rowing. There were a lot of spectators that come. Everyone wears blazers. There’s a whole spectacle to it too. It felt like a really fun event.”

Now, Verlinde is back at Princeton and collecting data this summer for her thesis. The molecular biology major would like to pursue an advanced degree in neuroscience, but also has other options, including potentially another year of rowing if she goes to school overseas, for post-graduation. First, she is looking for a big senior year that includes a lot of unique tradition in the rowing program, like painting an inspirational message on the bridge they row under on Lake Carnegie.

“I’m excited to be the ones to do that in the spring as a senior class and just to take on a leadership role and welcome the freshmen,” said Verlinde. “Generally senior year is a milestone in that everything is your last time with it, but there isn’t anything very particular that I feel like I missed out on. I’ve had a really great experience so far and it feels like I’ve had a bit of everything. It’s hard to know what I’m missing because I’ve had it all.”

Verlinde expects another good group of freshmen to join the program and to help keep the Tigers strong. She has valued each year in the program, how it has pushed her to become a better rower, and the experiences that she has shared with teammates. She is looking to do her part to keep the Tigers at the top. Three national titles in three years can’t be beaten, especially with a third one coming after coming off a serious injury.

“It has been incredible,” said Verlinde. “And it’s funny to think back to my freshman year and I wasn’t even sure if I would keep rowing. I was a walk-on on to the team. I knew it was something I enjoyed, and being a part of this team has really brought a new level of commitment and love for this sport, and for the people. It’s been great to be a part of this community and see everyone so excited to race. It’s great to be a part of a program that knows how to bring athletes to the next level and also has a lot of fun. It’s been a good balance and a helpful part of my life.”