Saratoga Rowing Association is slowly but surely making Saratoga a rowing destination

Eric Catalano is a visionary man.

The executive director and head coach of the Saratoga Rowing Association wants to make Saratoga “a premier rowing destination.

“We want to be part of the fabric of the city, and when people think of Saratoga, they think of the rowing happening here as a big part of our culture in the city,” Catalano said.

Part of this objective is to organize rowing competitions, called regattas. Saratoga is a great place because of its bodies of water, especially Saratoga Lake and Fish Creek; the “resort feel” of the city, including enough hotels to accommodate a large number of teams; and its central location in the northeast, Catalano said.

The SRA recently hosted the New York State Collegiate Championships and the State High School Championship Regatta.

Catalano also launched the ARION program in 2016, which supports rowers who have finished college and want to pursue the Olympics.

“It takes a whole village to help an elite athlete get to the Olympics, especially in those sports that aren’t big contract sports,” Catalano said.

In addition to bringing in top athletes, including Olympian Kristi Wagner, the ARION program is creating an autonomous cycle of SRA rowers.

ARION athletes coach high school and modified teams, helping them give back to their sport and serve as an example to young athletes.

“They’re just really good female role models, I think, to show you what it’s like to compete and perform at this very high, elite level and still do what they love,” said Olivia Vavasour, who rowed for SRA and is now with Brown.

“Everyone at SRA really taught what it meant to be an athlete,” said Emily Swenson, a Schuylerville graduate who also rows for Brown. “So coming to Brown, I was ready to take on the dedication that I had to put in to be able to compete.”

Some area schools, including Niskayuna, Shenendehowa, Burnt Hills, Saratoga, and Schuylerville, have their own school teams that play each other in the spring. In the fall, many of these athletes, like Swenson, row for the SRA.

Vavasour and Swenson are two of more than 40 local athletes rowing at the Division I level, and there are countless others at Division II and III schools. Many of them rowed for the SRA.

“Even when I was in second grade, I saw a group of girls being recruited into rowing,” said Stella Haley, a Duke rower.

Brown’s assistant coach Tessa Gobbo said Saratoga started showing up on her radar for the past 10 years or so, and she now checks the results of SRA regattas as part of her recruiting routine.

Although recruiting is primarily an individual process, SRA coaches help where they can.

When rowers ask varsity girls coach Lauren Schall for help, “I know someone I can put them in touch with, who probably knows this school, knows this program, knows this person,” a- she declared.

SRA trains rowers at all levels, including those taking up the sport in sophomore or junior. They try to match everyone’s level of challenge to their skill level, giving top athletes access to top-level competition and placing newbies in boats that match their level as well.

“We don’t put anyone over their head and we don’t make it easy for anyone,” Catalano said. “And that sense of accomplishment, effort, learning and growth is felt and celebrated at every level.”

SRA is able to accommodate many different skill levels, in part because rowing, with the wide variety of boat sizes available, offers so many opportunities, Schall said.

Because it is a large program, SRA focuses on eight-person (eight) boats, but athletes also gain experience in four-person, two-person or solo rowing. In NCAA meets, three boats count for points – the first varsity eight, the second varsity eight and the varsity four. At the secondary level, each boat class is raced separately.

Part of what makes SRA successful, Gobbo said, is that “they just do a good job of making it fun for the athletes.”

“It was always where we wanted to be. The boathouse was a safe space (where) we were all happy to go after school so we could see each other and row there,” Swenson said. “The simple act of giving, of teaching the love of sport is what helped us all to be so passionate about what we do and enabled us to excel at the next level.”

Andrew B. Reiter