Coach Alice Henderson strides across the ramp towards the 2x moored on the floating dock. “Picking up where we left off,” she says to the rower putting oars to oar locks and the rower she’s guiding across the dock. “Connection and catches.”
It’s Labor Day weekend, four weeks before the 2017 World Rowing Championships in Sarasota, Florida, and this crew of two is in training. For Natalie McCarthy, who began rowing in college and who took a bronze at the 2013 World Para Rowing Championships, this will be her final international race. For Russell Gernaat, who has been rowing a year and a half, this will be his first, the start of his competitive rowing career.
Natalie and Russell’s first race was at the timed trials for the US National Team, only a month before, where they beat out the other para rowers in their category, earning them their shot at the World Championship.
They’ve been rowing together since April.
Their schedule is grueling — and unusual. Natalie lives in Seattle; Russell, on the San Francisco Peninsula. They do not train together daily or even weekly. Instead, Natalie flies down every five weeks and for four days they row together, typically doing double days, rowing both morning and afternoon. “What’s great,” says Alice, “is that every time we’ve gotten together, we’ve picked up where we left off, instead of being back at square one. They are both just tenacious athletes.” Even though five weeks pass before the pair meet up to train together again, each practice builds from the last. The work they do on their own continues to propel them forward as a team. “I’ve coached high school, college, masters,” Alice says, “and these two are some of the toughest athletes ever.”
The physical distance between them is not the only handicap they face. Natalie is 5’3” and weighs 125 pounds. Russell towers above her at 6’5” and weighs 220. That’s more than a foot difference in height and a hundred pound difference in weight. “No boat is designed for that,” says Alice. “Boats are designed for people who each weigh a hundred and thirty or a hundred and sixty or a hundred and eighty.” One rower at 125 and the other at 220 makes for a boat with the weight not evenly distributed. “I think with the wing rigger, we can move the rigger forward and get his weight more in the center,” she says. “You don’t want the bow to be heavy.”
Although when they raced at trials, Natalie was in bow and Russell in stroke, as of this weekend, the seats are reversed. And that’s the third surprising thing about this team: the recent change in seating. “Because she’s visually impaired, when they get off course, it’s easier for him to see and get back on,” says Alice. Plus, every team has a “bobble stroke” over a 2K, she says, and what’s important is how quickly rowers can come back from that. “I think we’ll recover faster with Natalie at stroke,” she adds. But it means a new configuration for the rowers, only a month — and one more practice together — before the championships.
Still, the team and their coach remain focused and positive. “We beat some really solid people to get to the World’s,” says Alice. “It wasn’t uncontested. So I think we have the potential to be on the medals.” Out on the water, the two rowers continue their drills, pivoting forward and back in unison, synching the action of their oars, finding that connection with each other, the boat, and the water.