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News & Results

Rowing to Lithuania

Anita Sarrett

The Oakland Strokes are proud to have had three athletes attend the Under 19 World Rowing Championships in Trakai, Lithuania this past summer.  Spencer Dettlinger, Nikita Lilichenko, and Kate Miles all represented the United States and the Oakland Strokes in an exemplary fashion.  They made the local papers, with an article on Spencer here and an article on Nikita and Kate here.

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Kate Miles '18, second from right, racing in the USA Junior Women's 4x at the Junior World Championships in Trakai, Lithuania this summer.

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Spencer Dettlinger '18 (second from left) and Nikita Lilichenko '17 (fourth from left) on the podium stand after winning silver at the Junior Worlds Championships

In addition, the author of the  Lamorinda weekly Jon Kingdon shared his full, uncut article on Nikita and Kate with us, please read on below:

Many may read this and respond: “I didn’t realize that our local high schools had rowing teams.”  The fact is the local schools and just about every other high school in California does not have a rowing team.

So how did Kate and Nikita develop into such great rowers?  They learned their skills as so many do in California on a club team, in their case, the highly regarded Oakland Strokes.

Unlike the swimming programs in Lamorinda where so many of the participants start as young as four years old, rowers as a rule don’t begin until middle school.  In fact, Kate did not begin rowing until her sophomore year and Nikita began as a freshman.

Both attributed their initial interest to relatives: “My Mom (Judy) rowed in college and said how much she loved it and my best friend and I started together,” said Kate who has eight other classmates from Campolindo that are also participating at Oakland Strokes.

Nikita’s older brother was a competitive rower and he decided to try it himself, “I participated in the Learn to Row summer camp for a one week session and I really fell in love with the sport,” said Nikita.  What also appealed to Nikita about rowing was “you don’t have to start at a young age to be successful.  If you are committed to it, you can begin to show results immediately.”

Kate learned early that “You get out what you put into it.  There are no short cuts.  You can’t cheat.”  The satisfaction she found was “knowing you put in the effort necessary to be successful.”

As you would imagine, it requires a great effort to reach the peaks of excellence required to make the national teams.  Says Nikita, “There is a lot of working out and practice on your own but it is the team effort that is necessary to make everything happen.  Your boat is only as fast as your slowest rower.  I always found new challenges to face on the water and it really held my interest” 

Kate found her motivation from her teammates: “When in a boat with other people, that really drives me.  It’s actually harder when I am training by myself.  We win and lose together.” 

Managing Director of Oakland Strokes, Dana Hooper says that: “The sport rewards hard work more than any other sport I’ve seen.  Rowing as a sport is the most direct relationship with how hard you worked and how you ranked in the sport.  Regardless of your skill level you can work hard and be successful.  This is the allure to many of the kids.  You control your own destiny. Every rower learns that it is the ultimate team sport with 2, 4 or 8 rowers in a boat.  You can show up with an ego but you will learn quickly to work as a team.”  There is also the single scull boat for those so inclined to row individually.

The racing seasons are in the fall and the spring with training between these seasons.  As members of the National Team, it became a year-round training routine for Kate and Nikita.

Allison Ray, Kate’s coach at Oakland Strokes saw the potential in Kate quickly: “It was clear early on that Kate was special.  She had the physiological tools to be a top rower - she is tall (5’11) with long arms and legs which make her set up to be a good rower. She is also very athletic having a strong history in basketball and swimming.  In the time that we have had her, she has improved very quickly.  It showed up quickly.  I couldn’t wait for her to get to the varsity team. She’s very coachable and has an innate sense of the rowing stroke.  It was up to us to teach her all the skills that go along with it. She works very hard and is special as a person, an athlete and in her mind set.  She is wired to be a competitive athlete.”

Brian De Regt, Nikita’s coach at Oakland Strokes also saw the potential early in his exposure to Nikita: “It did not take long for him to develop.  Nikita has the frame (6’5”) to be able to produce the power output. Physiologically he is world class. He is naturally strong and has the drive and willingness to suffer.  He has the ability to push himself when it is uncomfortable.”

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What is that makes a top rower?  To simplify, it’s strength, endurance and technique.  Needless to say, there is a lot of discomfort as you push yourself to your perceived limits.  According to Hooper: “Handling the discomfort is the hardest trick.  You don’t talk about the pain. The most successful rowers learn how to manage it.”

The most crucial machine in training is the ergometer. referred to by the rowers as the “erg.”  It is the one objective measurement for rowers.  Ergometer tests are used by rowing coaches to evaluate rowers and is part of athlete selection for many senior and junior national rowing teams. During a test, rowers will row a set distance and try to clock the fastest time possible, or a set time and try to row the longest distance possible. The most common distances for erg tests are 2000, 5000, 6000 or 10,000 meters.

Both Kate and Nikita use the erg to judge how well they have improved.  Though Nikita values those numbers as a tool, he also understands that “Ergs don’t float.  Technique is a huge aspect and difference between good and bad rowers.”

According to Hooper: “I could have a week long conversation about technique.  It is crucial to do it right.  When it is done perfectly, it looks like you’re not working that hard.  It takes a lot of time and patience to learn it correctly.”

Kate participated in a lot of sports prior to rowing and “I was in good shape to begin with but it took a while to develop the correct technique and I still have a long way to go.”

According to Nikita: “What really helped me develop was the team aspect – being with the team all the time you push them and they push you. You remember how the next stroke you are going to take will impact the race. You think about each stroke as you make it.

The key to De Regt is to get “an understanding of how to work with the water.  It’s not complicated.  You can learn 90 percent of the proper technique in the first week but it may take 10 years to learn the finest points.”

Nikita attributes his improvement in technique to De Regt and to Jesse Foglia, an assistant coach at Harvard who was his coach with the national team.

Being invited to tryout for the Junior National Team was just the first step.  Making the team was even more difficult.  Kate saw it as a real challenge: “It was very competitive because everyone there was very talented and athletic.”  Once again, the rowers were tested on the erg machine on land and in speed racing tests where the rowers competed with various partners in different boats to select the top rowers.

Kate was chosen to row in the quadruple sculls, a four-person boat with each of the rowers handling two oars, ultimately finishing in fifth place.

It was a truly memorable experience for Kate: “There were over 50 countries represented there.  It was an opportunity to see lots of different techniques and see how some worked better than others.  Though there was little interaction with the other teams during the competition, at the end we traded our team gear with the rowers from the other countries.  I took great pride in representing the United States.  I have also maintained relationship with many of my teammates who came from all over the country”

Last year was Nikita’s second year on the national team.  Each year he was on the team, he rowed on the eight man crew, finishing second twice in the international competiton, losing out to Germany by one second in this years finals.  The most difficult part of working with the national team was the fact that his teammates came from all over the country.  According to Nikita: “Since there were a number of techniques used by the rowers, the first thing the coaches had to do was to get everyone to row with the same technique.”

Just getting to Lithuiana was very difficult as the team had to take three 3 connecting flights to get there.

Regardless, it was worth it to Nikita: “Once there, it was a great experience. We were one of the first teams there, arriving about a week before the competition.  It was great to see the various teams – the languages and the colors. It was an honor to represent the United States amidst the various countries.  That was the highlight of the experience.”

Nikita will be starting his freshman year of college and will be rowing for Stanford as well.  As hard as he has worked in high school and for the national team, he sees rowing in college as a real demand for him to organize his time: “I am going to have to be more efficient with my time than in high school.  Three days a week, we will be practicing at 5:45 a.m.  Their boathouse is 20 minutes away from campus and we will be practicing for 2 ½ hours and then it’s back to campus and classes.”

Kate, who will be a senior this year at Campolindo is being recruited by a number of colleges and anticipates competing in college as well.

Nikita would like to see the sport continue to grow in the Lamorinda area: “I would really encourage people to try rowing.  It’s a sport that is not that well known.  Yet with all the other sports available, a lot of people are discovering this to be a sport where they fit in.  A lot of people go into rowing as true beginners but after just a couple of years, they can improve rapidly if the commitment is there. Oakland Strokes is a great organization that tries to reach out to a wide range of people.”