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Know, know, know your boat

In New Jersey, locals have turned out to support the US national team with pizza, housing, handiwork – and delight.

By Correspondent / July 17, 2008

Meet and greet: Locals got autographs from Olympic rowers (from left) Dan Walsh, Giuseppe Lanzone, and Jamie Schroeder last month at New Jersey's Mercer County Park.

Ann Hermes

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WEST WINDSOR, N.J.

Under a tent on the banks of Lake Mercer, the placid morning water spaced with regimented rows of red and yellow buoys, Jaime Friscia can barely contain herself.

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The newly named US Olympic Rowing Team, in training here, is signing autographs in a public meet-and-greet, and Jaime shuttles among the athletes, pen and poster in hand. It’s the equivalent of a basketball fan’s joy at meeting Michael Jordan.

Getting up early is nothing new for Jaime, a sophomore in high school and a passionate rower herself. “Me and my dad always come down here to see the rowers in the morning,” she says. Today, she’s here with both her parents, Rich and Barb Friscia. “It was awesome to see how many people came out!” Jaime continues. “One [of the rowers] said, ‘I didn’t know anyone would even come to this.’ ”

But come they did. This summer, in New Jersey’s Mercer County – an area that includes both West Windsor and Princeton, which are about five miles apart – rowers’ cries of “Pull! Pull!” are heard more often than in any other part of the country, and many fans know the athletes by name. From free pizza dinners and free housing to flexible work schedules at local employers, people here have surged forward to support the team, offering nearly everything they can.

The area has a long crew tradition, but over the past decade, a passion for rowing has been spreading even to those who, until recently, thought launches were for rockets, and shells for the beach. In 2001, the Princeton National
Rowing Association, a nonprofit that promotes the advancement of the sport, created the Mercer Junior Rowing Club, which allows high-school students like Jaime to train and compete in what has traditionally been an elite, Ivy League-dominated diversion.

When Mike Teti, a three-time Olympic rower and current head coach of the men’s Olympic team, was considering moving the team from San Diego to West Windsor’s Lake Mercer and Princeton University’s Lake Carnegie over a decade ago, his primary rationale was the uncommon enthusiasm and support the Princeton community would provide.
The result has been a synergistic relationship between the community and the team.

“We wouldn’t be able to survive without them,” says Mr. Teti, who has also coached the Princeton University team. “USRowing is a volunteer organization, so one of the reasons we came here – it wasn’t just the facilities, it was also the community. Our athletes have jobs here; a lot of families house our athletes; and we have guys like Tim Hosea who volunteers his time.”

A former rower at Harvard, Dr. Hosea is an orthopedic surgeon in Princeton who now volunteers as the chairman of sports medicine for USRowing. “We know these guys don’t have two nickels to rub together, so we try to help them out as best we can,” he says. “The community has been extraordinarily generous.” Even local pizza joints offer athletes gratis dinners a few times a week, he says.

Such generosity is crucial for a sport like rowing, which requires just as many grueling hours of training as the A-list sports, but without the promise of fame, fortune, and media adulation for those who find success.

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