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.
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.
After graduating from college, many rowers cannot afford to continue to train for an Olympics that may be years away.
“The biggest issue with our athletes is retention,” says Teti. “You’re not going to be a professional rower. You have these athletes who come from the university; they do their four-year Olympic cycle, and they’re done.... So I thought, if we can set up a scenario where we allow these athletes to start careers, and keep them in the sport longer, it would [increase] our chances” of keeping them. Teti has experienced this firsthand: While he trained for three Olympics, his boathouse was two blocks from his job and five blocks from his home. “So I never retired from rowing,” he says. “I just got worse and got cut.”
Both Teti and Hosea point to a number of local businesses that have hired rowers and offered flexible schedules to accommodate their training, including Bloomberg, the Princeton Financial Group, and Johnson & Johnson.
Bryan Volpenhein, who rows in the seven spot on the Men’s Eight boat, has trained in Princeton since 1998, and he has supported himself with a variety of handiwork over the years. “Locals have you over and have you build stuff or paint stuff and give you a lot more money than you really deserve. I’ve built a shed in somebody’s back yard, painted houses, put up drywall, cleaned gutters, and even washed windows.”
And over a dozen athletes work in Home Depot’s Olympic Employment Program, which pays Olympic hopefuls a full-time salary for a 20-hour flexible workweek.
“People in the community, they come in, see how tall we are, and they ask, ‘What are you doing working at Home Depot?’ ” says Dan Walsh, 6’ 7’’ and 220 pounds, who will row in the six spot for the Men’s Eight boat. “When they hear you’ll be in the Olympics, they come back and ask for you. I find it’s a good way to make fans in the community – and I’ve never been around so many people that care about rowing.”
Like dozens of rowers every year, Mr. Walsh stayed at the Aquinas Institute, Princeton University’s Roman Catholic chaplaincy, when he arrived in 2005 to train. The Institute’s director, Father Tom Mullelly, is also a passionate supporter of rowing, and he offers his facilities free to newly arrived rowers. He also sponsors a team dinner every Thursday.
Many rowers find free longer-term housing through word of mouth and networking. “I have a really sweet deal,” says Caryn Davies, who rows the “stroke,” or eight spot, at the back of Women’s Eight boat. “I’ve been supported by so many people over the years, but I’m currently living with ... a guy who had nothing to do with rowing, and I love that, since he doesn’t ask me about it all the time. I’m paying no rent for a room in a nice house. And he gets a kick out of telling his friends he has an Olympian in the house.”
Mr. Friscia, Jamie’s father, has noted that same excitement in his work as a physical therapist and athletic trainer. “Now I have patients starting to talk about [rowing]. More people are showing up for the local regattas, and my daughter can’t get enough of it.”
Other high-school-aged rowers have also found inspiration for their grueling training as they watch some of the world’s best rowers.
“People say, ‘Don’t you think it’s great for these high school kids to walk by and see these Olympians rowing?’ ” says Teti. “I say, well, it’s just the opposite. It’s better for us to watch these high school kids, because it reminds us of when rowing was fun!”