A 'sweeping' success: Skyline rowing teams earn international accolades early in their development
Courtesy Kit Bennett
When the Skyline High School rowing clubs began three years ago, they didn’t have a site to call their own. The teams borrowed equipment from other Ann Arbor clubs and had 25 members total between the boys and girls teams.
Three years later, both teams are enjoying levels of success that even their head coach didn’t think were possible.
“If someone had said to me three years ago ‘you’re going to be placing in U.S. Nationals and Canadian Nationals,’ I just wouldn’t have believed them," said coach Kit Bennett. "It’s a testament to the work these kids have put in.”
For the rowers, hard work can be defined as five or six practices each week with each practice lasting nearly 2 1/2 hours. It’s a commitment that comes as a surprise to those first starting out.
Courtesy Kit Bennett
“At the beginning, I thought it would be like any other sport. Within the first couple weeks I saw that it was a little more time consuming, but it was a good change of pace,” said Michelle Buitron, a senior on this year’s team. “The atmosphere the coaches have created has caused the students to want to work.”
Bennett and fellow coach Julia Nelson have been the leaders of the program since Day 1 and, from the beginning, the pair stressed the importance of giving it your all.
“That’s the mantra of the team. ‘You work hard and you will find results,’ Bennett said. "We like winning medals and doing well, but that’s not the focus of the program.”
Over the course of the 2011-12 season, those results included a silver medal finish at both the U.S. Scholastic and Canadian national events for the men’s junior four, as well as a bronze for the women’s junior four at the Canadian event.
According to Bennett, the Canadian national event is one of the top-three races in the world for rowers in the same age group.
Because of the success of the program on the national level, Buitron and three other Skyline rowers were invited to a national development camp this summer in Connecticut. Senior Francesca D'Introno and sophomores Sam Ellison and Aaron Stryker. Only Buitron accepted.
At a time when many of her friends are having graduation parties, Buitron is hard at work. She admits that she wishes she could be home with her friends, but she couldn’t miss the chance to go to the camp.
Courtesy Kit Bennett
“I’m kind of sad about missing that. But this is a once in a lifetime experience, so I’m enjoying this,” Buitron said. ”It causes me to challenge myself and train harder on a daily basis. I have to push myself to stay competitive.”
After the camp is finished later this summer, Buitron is set to continue rowing in college at a Division-I school. Buitron wouldn’t say what schools have offered her scholarships, but expects to choose one in the next couple weeks.
For Bennett, having someone like Buitron on the team has made building the program a bit easier.
“I’ve coached multiple sports over 12 years, and she is probably the best athlete I’ve coached,” Bennett said. “Her desire to improve herself, her work ethic, it’s rare to find that maturity in a teenager. It’s been a pleasure to coach her.”
As luck would have it, Bennett was also invited to the development camp to coach the girls in sculling, a discipline of rowing that involves using two smaller oars instead of one large oar. Bennett hopes that by attending the camp, he can help improve sculling in the area.
“As a coach I was screaming through the rooftops, I was excited. But this is more about the opportunities this is going to afford the kids, especially in the Ann Arbor area,” Bennett said.
Thanks in large part to the successes the teams have enjoyed, the program at Skyline has grown each year and now there are just under 60 members between the two squads. As the team grew, it became necessary for the team to find its own site to work from.
Bennett contacted Concordia University to see if they would be willing to host the Skyline program on its campus. Soon, the Eagles were preparing to move into what is now their permanent home on the banks of the Huron River.
“I cannot speak highly enough of Concordia. They’ve facilitated us being here and they have been just so supportive of us,” Bennett said.
Once they had the grounds, the team started raising money to help build a dock and supply other essentials to fielding a team of that size.
“It really is a true community. The effort that has gone in from the parents, to the athletes, to the coaches to make Skyline crew what it is, is very touching,” Bennett said. “It’s really just a phenomenal group to work with. I couldn’t ask for a better group.”
Now that her time at Skyline has passed and the next generation builds on the foundation, Buitron said she was proud of what the first group of rowers accomplished.
“We were a brand new team and none of the other schools were expecting us to compete with them. We were able to compete with them and beat them in some races,” she said. I’m very surprised. Many teams it takes them a lot longer than three years to get where we have.”