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Water works

The 2010-2011 Winter Park High School girls’ crew team, pictured with Coach Mike Vertullo, made history at the Stotesbury Cup.

The 2010-2011 Winter Park High School girls’ crew team, pictured with Coach Mike Vertullo, made history at the Stotesbury Cup.

Brittni Larson

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Four years of their lives had boiled down to five minutes, and as they rowed through the finish line, goosebumps pricked their arms, cheerful yells poured out of their mouths and their hearts hammered like never before. For some, this was their last chance.

“This is it — this is our last shot, it’s now or never,” Courtney Walling said.

This was the sentiment for the majority of the three Winter Park High School ladies crew teams, who’d spent their high school career rowing for a chance to finally get a medal at the nation’s oldest and highest regarded regatta, the Stotesbury Cup. They took home 27 medals, one for every girl — and made Winter Park history.

“We go there with the idea of bringing home 27 medals, but this was the first time ever,” Coach Mike Vertullo said.

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Tough competitors

Two boats won the bronze medal and the other took silver at the regatta. Vertullo said he knew the teams would be competitors — all three were state champions — but it was a great feeling to see them finally bring home a Stotesbury win. Winter Park High has a long tradition of crew, as one of the first in Florida to embrace the sport, and 30 years ranking at the top in the state. But this honor eluded them.

“This Stotesbury medal had haunted them their whole career,” said Michelle Meredith-Lakey, whose daughter was a senior on the team.

Experiencing the win

Once a boat crosses the finish as a medal winner, it gets to turn around and head straight to the grandstand while thousands of people watch, Vertullo said. The team had spent all year talking about that “special dock,” and how just putting a finger on it would be magical, sophomore Lauren Sand said.

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Senior Courtney Curto still gets goosebumps talking about it. Their minds could barely handle what had just happened, but the throbbing in their arms was replaced with a rush of happiness. With a win, all the pain goes away and the blisters, blood, summers without the beach and no free Saturdays are worth it. They relive the moments by marveling at photos of the event each day.

“Rowing up to the Stotesbury dock was like Christmas when I was 5,” said Walling, who will be attending Rutgers in the fall with a rowing scholarship.

Lifelong benefits

That’s one reason crew is a growing sport among female athletes — there are lots of scholarship opportunities, Vertullo said. About eight of his graduating seniors are going to college with one. And they’ll be headed there with life skills, not just great moves on the water, Lakey said.

The girls agreed: they learned time management, hard work, and how to win and lose. With students in the International Baccalaureate Program and the school’s valedictorian making up the team, time management was a vital skill to acquire, considering the practices that were six days a week for hours. The cycle of school, crew, homework and sleep is life for the girls, who said they’ve learned to prioritize better than their peers because of it.

Becoming a family

They’ve also learned to give up the spotlight and work as a team. In crew, no one’s a star; it’s the ultimate team sport, Vertullo said.

“We’re willing to work hard for each other,” Sand said.

A happy consequence of spending so much time together is that the team isn’t just a team; it’s a family. A “sisterhood,” Lakey likes to call it. Just as Coach Vertullo gathered and kept friends from his days as a rower, so has his team. When they need something, a teammate is first on the list to call.

“Crew is family,” Walling said. “We love each other; sometimes we fight, but in the end, they’re always there.”


Learn more

For more information about Winter Park High’s crew team, visit www.winterparkcrew.com. Coach Mike Vertullo will also be hosting a rowing summer camp. Go to the website for more information, or email Meggen Wilson at meggenwilson@gmail.com