Given the truly team nature of the sport of crew, a collegiate rower could easily go through a four-year career in complete anonymity—even if that person were an All-American on a nationally-ranked team. That’s familiar territory for UCSD senior Leah Llach (pronounced “jack”), who attained NCAA Division II All-American status last spring as a junior and currently holds down the No. 6 seat in the Triton varsity eight which is ranked third in the nation. “Leah has a lot of raw talent,” says UCSD Head Coach Pattie Pinkerton of Llach, who owns the third best ergometer score in the 30-year history of the program, “yet always, at every training session, she’s asking what she can do to improve. That’s one of the reasons her teammates elected her as one of their captains.” With the end-of-the-year championship regattas on the horizon, starting with this weekend’s Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association (WIRA) Championships, the Fremont (CA) native spent time talking about her sport and her team.
Q—How did your rowing career get started?
LLACH—I participated in intense sports during high school like wrestling, water polo, and swimming, and was looking for something to really push my limits. With encouragement from my parents, in particular, I decided to try rowing because it was a team sport not many people knew about.Q—What were your thoughts after your first time on the water?
LLACH—Oh my. This isn’t as easy as it looks.Q—How long does it take the average person to become a competent rower?
LLACH—A lifetime, but you usually are able to put together a decent stroke at the end of your second year.
LLACH—As a team we have been able to set very aggressive goals every year and achieve them by using everyone’s strengthes. We are not a tall team, as most rowers are, but we have the heart and the determination. I fully admire and love every one of my team members. Myself? I have learned how to completely appreciate everyone’s diverse talents as an addition to the team.
Q—What is the difference between average and better than average boats?
LLACH—If I had to pick something in particular besides power and technique, it would have to be trust, hands down. If the crew in the boat does not trust each other and what the coxswain calls, the boat is just a three-quarter ton dead weight in the water. That’s what I love about this team—we trust and support each other.
LLACH—You can make some extreme generalizations though it can often be different. The coxswain is generally under 120 lbs, very organized, able to multi-task, and a good motivator. Within the boat, even numbers are port, and odd numbers are starboard. The stern pair, or 7 and 8 seat, sit right in front of the coxswain and have good rhythm and pace which they set for the rest of the boat. They are the only two people who are allowed to talk to the coxswain during a race. Middle four, the” power house” or “engine room” (6, 5, 4, and 3 seat), are usually the biggest or most powerful girls and pretty much embody the name they are given. The bow pair, the two who cross the line first, are usually smaller in stature with great balance and they deal most with steering, in addition to the helping the coxswain at the start of a race. Everyone is extremely focused and strong, as we have to focus solely within the boat; if you look outside the boat you risk offsetting the balance and it slows down the boat.
LLACH—The race is broken down into four 500 meter pieces. At the start the coxswain gets a good point with bow pair’s aid, while the rest of the boat sits ready to row. “Attention, Row!” is the starting call made by the officials and we begin our “five-stroke start” which consists of a variation of three-quarter stroke, half stroke, three-quarter stroke, full stroke, full stroke to get the hull moving from a dead stop. Directly after, we do a “high 20” at around 38-40 strokes per minute to get the hull moving at maximum speed up which we achieve by sitting up and leaning back less. Immediately following, the coxswain will call a shift where we lengthen out to our sustainable “race pace” of 33-34 strokes per minute. For the next 1,000-1,200 meters the coxswain will give us calls of stroke rating, power 8’s, 10’, or 12’s, working off our power and other boats around us. Around 600 meters to go we know to get ready for the sprint where we bring up the rating and the power, our goal being to get our meters/second as high as possible while still hitting a 38 or 40 strokes per minute. Next to winning, of course, our goal this year is to pass out after we cross the finish line. A race lasts between 6:45 and seven minutes for women.
In a nutshell, it is power-endurance-power.Q—What has been your most exciting moment as a member of the UCSD Crew team?
LLACH—Getting UCSD’s first-ever bid to NCAA Women’s Championships with the varsity eight my sophomore year, and getting the first ever team bid (an eight and a four) to NCCA Championships my junior year.
LLACH—It’s a love-hate relationship. The intense physical pain and extreme hours of training are a huge ‘hate’ factor. What makes it worth it, though, are the days you see a great sunrise between intense pieces, where the boat is set and the power is on. Days where you get off the water and you are proud to be on the UCSD Women’s Crew team, and days we race when our coxswain calls a “power 10” to up the intensity and the boat flies so fast that the rest of the world disappears and you feel completely connected to every girl in the boat in a way you cannot describe.
Q—Crew is obviously one of the ultimate team sports. What stands out to you about your fellow seniors on the 2007 team?
LLACH—All the team members are amazing and I wish I could spend more time with every member, but we seniors in particular share the bond of dedication and seeing how our contributions have helped the program grow over the years.
LLACH—How to work under pressure and push my limits beyond what I thought was possible.Q—What was your most embarrassing moment on the water?
LLACH—I have blocked them out of my memory. Most likely catching a crab—your oar flips the wrong way in the water and you are thrown backward by your oar handle. It is very painful and makes the boat come to an awkward halt... there really is no way to ignore it.
LLACH—We spend the majority of time on the water. Our training schedule is M, T, W, F, Sat, 5:45 AM to 8:00 on the water at Mission Bay; M, W, F we have weight training from 9:00-10:00 AM; and T/Th we train on campus on the rowing machines at Spanos Track from 3:30 PM – 5:00 PM. Sometimes we run but rarely.
Q—What motivated you to come to UCSD?
LLACH—I decided to come to UCSD because of the excellent academic reputation and location, as well as word of mouth from family members.
Q—Aside from the crew team, what aspects of life at UCSD do you enjoy the most?
LLACH—Golden Spoon and Chipotle. They are important institutions.
Q—What types of things do you enjoying doing in your spare time?
LLACH—I enjoy (lots of) eating, cooking, traveling (my parents are both from outside the U.S.—mother, Germany and father, El Salvador), watching movies, and Ballroom dancing.
LLACH—I am an International Studies major and my tracks are political science and sociology. I am scheduled to graduate in June. In the next five years I hope to get experience in sales and marketing before I go to graduate school. I hope to live in Germany or Europe for awhile and expand my three languages to five. After grad school I plan to create my own non-profit aimed at facilitating and streamlining the donation process of the world.
LLACH—I really just want people to be happy with the effort they have put in and how it shows in our placing at the next few races. I think a big sign of success is how we place at Nationals, since our goal is to get on the podium. Or, as our strength coach likes to say, kick butt and take names.
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