After running away with the conference title this year, the UCF women’s rowing team became the first team since the 2014 UCF football program to win back-to-back conference titles.
What is important to note about this particular group is that they are making UCF women’s rowing history. Last season, they edged Tulsa in the final race and led the program to its first-ever conference title. They also garnered their first-ever automatic NCAA championship bid and finished 18th. They will try to build on that program success in this year’s championships.
Junior all-conference first team rower Rachael Klunder believes the team’s sheer will to win has propelled the team to perform at a championship level.
“Hard work, dedication [and] perseverance would be big things,” Klunder said. “When the going gets tough, you have to keep going.”
Fellow all-conference selection, junior rower Lauren Aiello noted that defending the conference title has pushed the team to fight for each and every inch to be better than they were a year ago.
“Last year was the first time we won conference in program history and so last year was like ‘OK we won’ and it’s like now how are we going to defend this?” Aiello said. “How can we get that extra inch in the water, how can you find that next level to push yourself so that we can defend our title?”
At the NCAA championships, the rowing team will once again be looking to fight for each inch and every advantage so that it can build on a legacy that’s been in the making for three years.
Three years ago, the Knights finished second to Louisville in the conference tournament, and since then they’ve focused on being more sound mentally and physically.
“It’s probably one of the most painful sports … it’s like the pain contest,” Aiello said. “You have to be mentally tough to just hold on and not give in to the pain.”
The pure difficulty in repetitively rowing non-stop at high rate of speed makes maintaining pace in the water extremely important, and extremely challenging at times. Junior rower Leonie Hamel believes that the mental endurance has been one of the largest obstacles for the team.
“You have to want it more,” Hamel explained. “Everyone wants it, but you have to want it that extra inch, that extra centimeter, that extra second, .1 of a second. You have to want it that little bit more mentally to physically do it.”
The following year, the rowing team defeated Louisville at an Oak Ridge scrimmage, and that added experience gave the team the confidence it needed to become conference champions.
Since finishing second in the conference to Louisville, the Knights have become a championship-level team, primed to establish a legacy that will set the foundation for future UCF rowers.
“We got a silver that year and look now we’re winning by nine, seven seconds,” Aiello said. “Every year we’re stepping it up a lot. We want to be top 15, top 10, eventually top five [and] the goal is to win the NCAA’s one day. Our mentality is to leave the program better than we found it.”
Hamel added that the realities of actually competing for an NCAA championship would have seemed foreign four years ago, when the team finished eighth in the conference tournament.
“We want to be the team that started this movement moving forward,” Hamel said. “If you had said to UCF rowers four or five years ago, ‘Hey you guys are going to win the conference in four years,’ they would've laughed.”
On May 27 the Knights’ rowing team will once again be competing with the fastest collegiate rowing teams in the country for the second year in a row. And they believe that competing with the likes of Ohio State, the three-time reigning NCAA rowing champions, will only make them better.
“We knew they were fast crews, but I don’t think we realized how fast they were,” Aiello said. “Which was good because I think rowing with the best makes you the best. Seeing that gave us motivation to step up our game, have more grit, [and] be more aggressive.”
As one of the Knights’ captains, Klunder understands that the team can’t become complacent with where they are right now. Heading into the NCAA’s as the two-time defending AAC champs, the Knights are hungry to row beyond winning just conference championships.
Christopher Davis is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter @ChristopherDTV or email him at ChristopherD@CentralFloridaFuture.com.