By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — She rowed competitively for five years in her native Canada before coming to the University of Virginia as a scholarship athlete in 2009, so Susanne Grainger was no novice in the sport.
Yet in her first year at UVa, Grainger found herself in the Novice Eight, a boat whose members often include walk-ons, some with no background in rowing. And that’s where she belonged, she says.
“I was running around like a chicken with his head cut off,” recalled Grainger, who’s from London, Ontario. “I had no idea what rowing was, what racing was, even though I had raced. I think it was more just opening my eyes to what it really was to compete and row at a certain level.”
Look how far she’s come. Grainger, who graduated May 19 with a double major in politics and studio art, is an All-ACC rower who’s in UVa’s top boat, the Varsity Eight for the second straight year. She helped the Wahoos win the NCAA team title in 2012 — as well as a national championship in the Varsity Eight — and may well compete for the Canada in the Olympics one day.
“Everybody blossoms at different times in their lives: some people really early, some people really late,” Virginia coach Kevin Sauer said. “She’s a late bloomer.”
As a sophomore, the 6-foot-1 Grainger had to contend with a rib injury and, worse, a thyroid problem that sapped her energy. But she eventually earned a spot in UVa’s Varsity Four, which won an ACC title, and was an alternate at the NCAA championships that spring.
“The light bulb went on and she found out that she could be really good at this,” Sauer said.
Moreover, he said, “I think physically she changed. She became an athlete. My wife was saying something the other day about how when Susanne first came here, she didn’t look like an athlete. Didn’t move like an athlete. She’s moving like an athlete now, she looks like an athlete, and she’s rowing like an athlete.”
Grainger said: “My learning curve in these past four years has blown my learning curve from high school out of the water.”
She can pinpoint the day her ascent began. It was at a practice in the spring of her sophomore year. The medication she’d been taking for her thyroid problem was working, “and I just felt a lot better,” Grainger said.
Then-associate head coach Steve Pritzker, who worked with the Varsity Four, kept moving Grainger to different seats in the boat that day, and in each one she excelled.
“For whatever reason, it was very easy for me to know what was making the boat faster,” Grainger said. “And from that day on, I think I kind of learned what it took to race at a higher level. But even from that point I’ve learned so much more.”
In the summer after her second year at UVa, Grainger tried out for and made Canada’s under-23 national team. She rowed in the women’s eight that won a gold medal at the under-23 world championships in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Last summer, about six weeks after helping Virginia capture its second NCAA crown in three seasons, Grainger won another gold at the under-23 world championships, this time in Canada’s women’s four in Trakai, Lithuania.
“She’s awesome,” Sauer said.
Grainger is one of three seniors in the Varsity Eight, along with Sarah Cowburn and Kristine O’Brien. All three were named to the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association’s All-South Region first team this week, and all were members of the Varsity Eight whose victory in the grand final last May on Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J., clinched the NCAA title for the `Hoos.
“There are no words to describe how that was,” Grainger said, “especially winning with those people. I wouldn’t have wanted to win that championship with anyone else. It was definitely an amazing experience, because of the friendships on the team and how close everyone was with each other.”
In the history of NCAA women’s rowing, only three schools have won back-to-back team titles: Washington in 1997 and ’98, Brown in 1999 and 2000, California in 2005 and ’06, and Brown again in 2007 and ’08.
Virginia will try this weekend in Indianapolis to join that group. Twenty-two schools will compete at this year’s NCAA regatta, starting Friday on Eagle Creek Park Lake.
A year ago on Mercer Lake, UVa earned 48 points for winning the Varsity Eight, 24 for finishing fifth in the Second Varsity Eight, and 15 for placing second in the Varsity Four. Michigan was NCAA runner-up with 82 points, five fewer than Virginia.
In the latest CRCA coaches’ poll, UVa is No. 5, behind No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 Southern California, No. 3 California and No. 4 Washington. At the NCAAs, the `Hoos are seeded fourth in the Varsity Eight, eighth in the Second Varsity Eight and 11th in the Varsity Four.
The NCAA field previously consisted of 16 schools, and the scoring system has changed this year, too. The new format:
* Varsity Eight — 66 points for first place, 63 for second, 60 for third, 57 for fourth and so on, down to 3 for 22nd.
* Second Varsity Eight — 44 points for first, 42 for second, 40 for third, 38 for fourth and so on, down to 2 for 22nd.
* Varsity Four — 22 points for first, 21 for second, 20 for third, 19 for fourth and so on, down to 1 for 22nd.
The Cavaliers haven’t competed since May 12, when they swept the Varsity Eight, Second Varsity Eight, Varsity Four and Novice Eight races at Clemson to win their fourth consecutive ACC title.
“We’ve used this time to really work them hard and get them ready,” Sauer said. “Not a bad thing. I told them, `Guys, it’s getting hot in the kitchen. You’ve got to realize, when we get to NCAAs, it’s really hot. Competition heats up, and you gotta be able to respond, you gotta be able to handle the pressure.’ ”
UVa’s Varsity Eight dominated all last spring, even in the grand final at the NCAA championships. That’s not likely to happen this year.
“The competition has grown a lot,” Grainger said. “I think we have as well, but I believe that if you put the boat that we had last year in the final race, it wouldn’t win. Because that boat was fast for last year, but we have to be faster to do it this year.”
Sauer said: “I’ve told them that from the early going: `Look, last year’s Varsity Eight, intact, same race, may not win this year. It might. But it may not.’ So to win this year we gotta be better than last year’s Varsity Eight. And to win the team title again we’ve got to be better in the 2V and as good or better in the 4.
“Right now the Varsity Eight’s going pretty well, but there’s like five or six, seven, eight Varsity Eights that could win. Seriously. Southern Cal’s probably the favorite, but Princeton’s good, Ohio State’s good, we’re pretty good, Washington’s good, Cal’s good.”
UVa’s Second Varsity Eight has “had a good year,” Sauer said, “but just kind of up and down as far as performances. And the 4, too. The Varsity’s been more solid as a performer. I tell the guys all the time, `There’s some programs that come into the NCAAs and they kind of go down a little bit. And some kind of stay level. Our goal is to soar.’ ”
The Cavaliers trained at Indiana University in Bloomington early this week before moving on to Indianapolis. When her college career ends, Grainger will move back to Canada. She’s been accepted into a one-year master’s program in Canadian-American relations at the University of Western Ontario.
Grainger moved with her family to Fort Myers, Fla., when she was nine months old. After 13 years in the Sunshine State, the Graingers returned to Canada, and that’s where Susanne is likely to live when she enters the working world. She hopes to become a corporate lawyer, like her mother.
“I love it down there in Florida and still consider it a second home,” Grainger said, “but most of my family, if not all, is in Canada.”
In Ontario, Grainger will live with former UVa rower Christine Roper, who was also in the four that won gold for Canada at the under-23 world championships last summer.
Roper already trains with Canada’s senior national team. Grainger has been invited to do the same, she said, “in hopes of making a boat for [the] 2016 [Olympics], but at this point, that’s quite far away.”
For now, her focus is on the NCAAs.
“I think as a whole, if we do what we’re capable of, we can do it again,” Grainger said. “But you can’t ignore what’s going on around us. It’s going to be a lot closer than it was last year.”