Owen Maier grew up around rowing. Having a father and a grandfather who rowed at the University of Pennsylvania tends to have that effect.
So when Maier signed up for a learn-to-row program in middle school at Episcopal Academy, it wasn’t a surprise that he took to it quickly. But the sport had one more surprise in store for him this spring. It wasn’t that the spring season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic; by now, such strangeness has worn thin.
Instead, what surprises Maier is how the EA rowing team, of which Maier is captain and his father Rob is a coach, has made the most of extreme circumstances.
“I think it had the chance to be terrible, because we had a great outlook (for the season),” Owen Maier said. “We really thought it was going to great. We came in second in Stotesbury (Cup Regatta) in the varsity four last year and didn’t have any graduating seniors, so we were really excited to put together what we thought was going to be a really, really good group of guys. Obviously we were disappointed when all the races were canceled and our boathouse shut down and we were at home.
“But we really made the most of it. I think that’s a huge credit to teamwork and being able to keep in touch via group chat and social media.”
Maier’s hopes for this spring were high. He started rowing as a novice freshman and has grown through the years. Once a soccer player, he switched to cross country his junior year and flourished. As a senior captain last fall, he was named All-Delco, and parlayed it into a solid indoor track season over the winter. He’d planned to compete sporadically for EA’s track team around his rowing commitments this spring. But that all came crashing down with the closing of schools and suspension of athletics due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maier’s senior spring had the potential to be a culminating celebration. He’ll row next year at Williams College. He’s been around the sport since his youth, recalling visits to Boathouse Row as a kid at alumni days with his family. The idea of rowing on the Schuylkill River was ingrained in him from a young age.
Seeing his final chance at that taken away has stung. But stay-at-home orders didn’t end Maier’s EA rowing career.
He’s spent the spring coordinating teammates’ workouts. One way to inject some fun into the regimen came via Rowers Choice, the gear company which launched a national, row-at-home tournament called March Mania. Teams were able to enter their workouts from home rowing machines — ergometers or ERGs — and combine them to calculate a boat time in a virtual race.
Episcopal entered a pair of boats into the national junior men’s race. Maier’s boat, dubbed Team EA (with Peter Woodville, Arya Venugopalan and Billy Stavropoulos), won a pair of races and advanced to the Sweet 16.
At least year’s Stotesbury Cup, the EA Senior Four boat (Maier, Woodville, Stavropoulos, Ian Reape and coxswain Juliana DiCarlo) finished second, 1.8 seconds behind Christian Brothers Academy of New Jersey. In the virtual tournament, EA beat Row New Jersey in its opening round by a narrow margin. In the Sweet 16, EA posted the fifth-fastest time overall. But it was beaten by CBA’s boat (rowing as Monmouth Jrs.) by nine-tenths of a second in its head-to-head, meaning it didn’t advance.
The intense connection of being crowded into a boat and working as one unit can’t be replicated in the isolation of quarantine (and it doesn’t lend itself to social distancing). But Maier saw this competition as the next-best thing.
“There’s nothing really quite like being on the water, having to do it live, with no re-dos; there’s nothing quite like that,” Maier said. “But I think the competition did serve its purpose because we were on the ERGs anyway, we were given workouts, and here’s a chance to compete against some guys, and we ended up competing in the Sweet 16. … It wasn’t quite racing, but given the circumstances, I think it was very successful and kept our guys engaged.”
Maier isn’t sure when he’ll get back on the water, a quest complicated by the dredging of the Schuylkill River this spring. High school regattas have all been canceled, and Maier was looking toward possibly competing at the Henley Royal Regatta in London before that was nixed in the first week of June. One silver lining he’s found is an earlier connection to future teammates at Williams, who are all in the same (metaphorical) boat during the pandemic.
The captain in Maier is heartened to see teammates continue to improve even when they can’t work together, something that he can leave behind for the program.
“I think everyone on the team has gotten a lot better about making any sort of physical, aerobic activity part of the routine, part of the daily routine, something that feels good and is rewarding but also something that has to be self-directed,” Maier said. “I think it’s taught people really good self-discipline that is going to be really valuable in the winter and the offseason and when people start to do different things, which is great. … I think this season can show people that mentally they can keep going, they can keep in great shape even if they’re not seeing their teammates every day in person.”
Part of it is a necessary mindset shift. This isn’t the spring Maier wanted. But then, it’s also not the spring that he feared he’d be consigned to.
“I think what could’ve been a non-season and a really disappointing way for the seniors like myself to go out ended up being very engaging,” Maier said, “and to some degree a success in competition.”