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Facing adversity, a local youth rowing team places top ten nationally

Jun 21, 2024, 2:00 PM

Rowers from Utah Crew travelled to Sarasota, Florida, to compete in the USRowing Youth National Cha...

Rowers from Utah Crew travelled to Sarasota, Florida, to compete in the USRowing Youth National Championships. (Ahsan Iqbal, Utah Crew)

(Ahsan Iqbal, Utah Crew)

SALT LAKE CITY — In a small surplus canal just off California Avenue in Salt Lake City, a team of high school crew rowers has trained for competition at the national level.

In 2024, that team placed among the top teams in the country at the USRowing Youth Nationals competition on June 6-9.

The men’s boats placed 9th nationally, and the women’s boat, suffering a last-minute substitution, placed 16th.

Utah Crew, a rowing team composed of middle and high-school-aged youth, is coached by former MIT rowers Linda and Ahsan Iqbal. In the past, rowers from Utah Crew have gone on to row at pillars of the sport including the University of Washington, Harvard, and Stanford, according to their website.

Cristobal Verdugo, 17, sets up his boat for practice at the USRowing Youth Nationals in Sarasota, Florida. He placed 9th in the nation. (Ahsan Iqbal, Utah Crew)

Cristobal Verdugo, 17, sets up his boat for practice at the USRowing Youth Nationals in Sarasota, Florida. He placed 9th in the nation. (Ahsan Iqbal, Utah Crew)

Head coaches Linda and Ahsan Iqbal moved to Utah in 2015, and Linda took a coaching position at Utah Crew that same year.

“I love coaching and wanted to continue coaching. I googled rowing in Utah, and Utah Crew came up.” Linda Iqbal said. “I contacted the head coach at the time and said I wanted to volunteer, so that’s how it all started.”

By the time the Iqbals got involved in coaching the team, the pace wasn’t there for a national competition, and the top boats weren’t eligible.

According to the USRowing website on qualification for the Youth Nationals competition this year, competitors must receive a bid to compete based on results at qualifying regional regattas. Utah’s qualifying regatta is the Southwest championships, in California.

“Their progression to nationals wasn’t there. There was one crew that made it there (to nationals) by progressing through the mountain west region one year.” Ahsan Iqbal said. “Mountain west was basically just us and Colorado, and we were faster than all of them. So, they qualified, but they were like last place at nationals.”

Once Linda took over as head coach, the goal was solidified to make Utah Crew a nationally competitive team, laying the groundwork for their efforts in Sarasota.

“After my retirement in 2019, we (Linda and myself) had the goal of going sailing. We gave ourselves five years to prepare for that, and those five years have been spent getting the team fast and consistently ending up in finals at Southwest regionals.” Ahsan Iqbal said.

At the Southwest regional regatta this year, every rower that attended from Utah Crew progressed into semifinals. In the finals, each boat ranged from third to seventh-fastest in their race, with the Mens single and Mens club 4 placing third.

“The top three teams get medals, but the top four teams (in each race) are invited to national championships. We got an invitation for the Men’s youth single, Men’s under-17 quad, and then the Women’s youth quad finished sixth in their final but two crews in front dropped out. They received the invite within a couple of days to attend youth nationals.” Ahsan Iqbal said.

The Women's Youth Quad, rowed by Emily Hilker, Roisin Khor-Broghan, Tate Horsley, and Emily Maughan prepares for their races at the USRowing Youth Nationals Competition (Ahsan Iqbal, Utah Crew)

The Women’s Youth Quad, rowed by Emily Hilker, Roisin Khor-Broghan, Tate Horsley, and Emily Maughan prepares for their races at the USRowing Youth Nationals Competition (Ahsan Iqbal, Utah Crew)

Training for nationals

While Utah Crew has been able to compete and rank at the national level, the facilities in Utah are lacking. The team practices indoors for the winter, and in the early spring, they must row on the Salt Lake, since the canal that they use isn’t a year-round waterway.

To compound this, the facility that they have set up is 1,700 meters, just over three-quarters of a regulation race length, and the canal is shaped similar to a dogleg, with two turns for the rowers to navigate during their practices.

“For Utah, we’re not able to get on the water early like the California crews can. So, we’re not able to build our speed until way late in the season,” Ahsan Iqbal said. “After Southwest (regionals) were done and the kids started training for nationals, they just picked up a boatload of speed. They were getting faster and faster every day.”

In order to make up for this deficit, rowers took on extra practices, with eleven sessions on the water every week.

One of the primary advantages Utah Crew has is their altitude training. Salt Lake City has an average elevation of almost 4,300 feet, leading to a faster boat once they race at sea level.

“One thing that does work in our favor is altitude,” Ahsan Iqbal said. “The fact that we are training at 4,200 feet really helps, and when we fly down into sea level racing like the national championships, that comes through really clearly.”

In rowing, boat cohesion and teamwork is as essential as the individuals, and once cohesion is built, athletes often find speed from each other as well as coaching staff.

“The boat cohesion we have, the kids who are in the boats, they’re all really motivated and really competitive. They would communicate with each other and compare timing to keep track of and push each other.” Linda Iqbal said.

National competition

Similar to the Southwestern regional regatta, all boats at the national competition must complete and place well in a set of time trials and semifinals in order to progress to the final races. If a crew fails to progress past the semifinals or time trials, then their national competition ends there.

“The athletes were so enthused that they had their best races. Every race they had at nationals, they just got faster and faster,” Ahsan Iqbal said. “They were also so happy that their discipline got so good. Being able to race 2,000 meters, that’s a pretty tough thing to do at nationals, when the margin at the very end is a matter of seconds.”

Each team that races at nationals has their own strategy of how to maintain a pace, and the recipe for success is unique to each team. Utah Crew’s strategy was one that paid off this year.

“The system that we use is to stay at your baseline through the 1,000-meter mark, and then the real race begins,” Ahsan Iqbal said. “We know that if we’re close to the other boats, we know we’re going to take off, and that’s what they did.”

That strategy resulted in the Men’s under-17 quad and youth single winning their finals, cementing them as the ninth fastest in the country by wide margins.

The Men's under-17 quad of Shaler Mahan, Tagg Perreca, Frederick Neugebauer, and Kavi Agerwal en route to their race. They placed ninth nationally. (Ahsan Iqbal, Utah Crew)

The Men’s under-17 quad of Shaler Mahan, Tagg Perreca, Frederick Neugebauer, and Kavi Agerwal en route to their race. They placed ninth nationally. (Ahsan Iqbal, Utah Crew)

The national competition wasn’t so easy for the Women’s boat. Their fastest rower, Nehla Stehlik, got sick in the middle of the event, leading to a substitute being flown from Utah last-minute.

“After the semifinals race, she said ‘woah, my heart rate is still up,’ and the next morning her roommate came down and said that Nehla was sick, with body aches and chills. Her parents are both doctors and we knew pretty quick that she wasn’t going to be able to race.” Linda Iqbal said.

“Then it was a matter of, it’s 11:00 a.m. in Florida, they have to race the following day in a final, so how do you get somebody?” Ahsan Iqbal said.

At competitions like nationals, contingencies for failure can be what saves a team from a last-minute setback. After Stehlik’s inability to race was confirmed, a substitute rower, Tate Horsley, was flown to Sarasota in order to take part in their final. In spite of their setback, the Women’s youth quad placed 16th nationally.

“All four of the women who raced this year are juniors. They’re already talking about next year. They’re hungry for that result.” Linda Iqbal said.

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Facing adversity, a local youth rowing team places top ten nationally