When Los Banos High graduate Victoria Vander Poel answered a call for potential walk-ons for the UCLA rowing team at the beginning of her freshman year, she had no idea that the sport would grab her the way it did.
For example, she finds herself keeping up with rowing news, and she wants to keep active with recreational rowing after she graduates. And in the spring she competed in the NCAA rowing championships as a junior, helping UCLA to a 12th-place finish as a member of the university’s second of three varsity boats.
“It was so crazy. I thought I would be somewhat prepared, but it just ... all the emotions kept coming out,” Vander Poel said. “Like when we were at the race line, and the race announcer was calling out each of the crews, I got so nervous. But as soon as they drop the flag, it's race time, I'm going. It was an unbelievable experience.”
After her freshman year, after getting her feet wet, so to speak, Vander Poel set goals of making a varsity boat and going to the NCAA championships. Now, three years in, she has to set new goals after accomplishing both of those.
Now the goal for her senior season is to help UCLA beat its best-ever finish of eighth place at the NCAA championships. While most people are taking the summer off to hang out at the pool, Vander Poel makes sure she works out at least an hour each day on the rowing machine.
During the season, an hour workout is just a warmup before the race. Then, once the boat is set in place, there’s a few minutes of silence before the race begins.
“They have locks you lineup into. Then you're sitting there waiting for them to call your race,” Vander Poel said. “Your emotions get like, OK, we're at the starting line. They call out the crews in the lanes. They go ‘tension,’ ‘go’ and then it gets crazy.”
Since Vander Poel sits in the bow, she controls which way the boat is pointed as it sits in the locks. Occasionally the coxswain will call an instruction to her to keep the boat lined up, since the race can start at any time. Other than that, and the occasional handshake up and down the boat, each rower is alone with their thoughts.
“With the adrenaline, you don't really remember it afterward,” Vander Poel said. “You’re thinking about what the gameplan is for that race, and what we've done to get to that point.”
Once the race begins, Vander Poel, watching her teammates’ backs, just works to stay in time with them.
“There's so much going on. The coxswain will call out things like positioning, our meters, or if we need to adjust our stroke rate,” she said. “I'm just thinking I have to follow everybody else. I'm bow, back of lineup, so I have to follow everybody else, and just keep up with everybody.”
Vander Poel said she didn’t start off her junior year where she wanted to be.
“Then in February, something clicked, and I got into the varsity 4 (the third varsity boat), and I did really well in my performances,” she said. “And then it was like, OK, I'm in the eight. They switched the lineups.”
Vander Poel, an economics major, said veteran rower Emily McLoughlin took her under her wing when she was just starting out, and she tries to play the same role now that she’s a veteran.
“Personally, I still have a lot to work on with my technique, so I just work to further my improvement and hopefully inspire girls that are coming into the program,” Vander Poel said. “I work with everybody, but it's cool to see girls that walk on.”