May 19, 2016

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When she was 11 years old, Heidi Long flew with her parents and siblings to the United States, where, on holiday, they visited family friends in New York and then traveled to Maine. It was a pleasant experience for Long, but she did not come away from the trip intent on returning to America.

“I don’t remember much about the U.S.,” Long recalled this week, “apart from they had massive ice cream portions, which obviously made me and my brothers very, very happy.”

Growing up in her native England — her hometown is Gerrards Cross, about 25 miles west of London — Long fully expected to attend a university in the United Kingdom. But as her graduation from high school neared, she started considering another option.

“The U.S. offered something that I couldn’t find anywhere at home, that could take both my academics and my sport to the next level,” Long said.

Her sport is rowing. At home, she competes for the Marlow Rowing Club, whose coaches include Sarah Cowburn, a former standout at the University of Virginia. If Long had interest in rowing in the States, Cowburn told her, she should consider UVA, which has won two NCAA team titles under head coach Kevin Sauer.

Her interest piqued, Long visited UVA in October 2014 and “fell in love with it,” she said. “Everything I saw I was like, `Wow, this is incredible!’ It was the first U.S. university that I’d seen, and just the facilities compared to the UK were unbelievable.

“But the team, I think, and the coaches, especially Kevin, were what really made me want to come here.”

The attraction was mutual.

“We just fell in love with the kid,” Sauer said. “She’s great. And so we knew that we wanted to get her here for sure, and we were hopeful that this would be the place that she would want to go. So we were lucky to get her.”

From Charlottesville, Long and her mother traveled to Seattle, where they visited the University of Washington.

“I went there and I liked a lot of it, but I loved UVA,” Long said. “U-Dub would have been a good school, but I didn’t love it.”

And so she became a Wahoo. Long, who’ll turn 20 in November, enrolled at the University last summer, and she quickly earned a spot on the team’s top boat, the Varsity Eight.

Such a feat is rare for a freshman at UVA, a perennial NCAA title contender. In a program that began competing at the varsity level in the fall of 1995, only seven women have rowed on the Varsity Eight for all four of their years. One of them was Fiona Schlesinger, who like Long and Cowburn is from England.

“If we’re doing our job as coaches right, [freshmen] shouldn’t be able to make the Varsity Eight,” Sauer said, laughing. “There should be [enough] depth and experience [among the program’s veterans]. But there’s always room for somebody that can come in and do a great job with it, and Heidi has. She’s got a really bright future.”

Long, a junior national champion in Great Britain, has competed at the World Junior Championships. Last week she was named ACC freshman of the year after helping Virginia capture its seventh consecutive conference title.

“I was talking to my parents the other day,” Long said, “and we couldn’t believe how this year has panned out. I think it was probably the best decision I ever could have made. I’ve had so much fun, and it’s been amazing, and I’m really excited to see what happens.”

She remembers her first practice at UVA, where the rowers were tested on ergometers, machines that measure the work done during an exercise.

“It was a 30-minute test,” Long said, “and I just started going, and I’ve never trained with that many girls of similar standard. So to look around and just feel this whole energy, that made me go fast. From the beginning, that helped me be able to get the sort of speed I wanted to try to make an impact on the team.”

Her immediate success has surprised her, Long said, “but I couldn’t have done it without a lot of the girls on the team. From the beginning, I think some of the girls may have recognized that I had the potential, so they took me out in pairs at the start to be able to learn the UVA technique. Because I came in rowing like I did from home, which is very different.”

Virginia is one of 22 teams that will compete at the NCAA championships May 27-29 in Gold River, Calif., outside Sacramento.

The Cavaliers have finished in the top six at each of the past nine NCAA regattas, winning in 2010 and ’12.

“I think we’re in a pretty good place,” Sauer said. “For the past two, three weeks around the country, everything has been mixed up. Nobody’s undefeated. It’s wide open who can win this thing.”

The `Hoos, who leave Tuesday for Sacramento, are seeded No. 5 in the Varsity Eight, No. 5 in the Second Varsity Eight and No. 3 in the Varsity Four. (The scoring breakdown for each race is listed at the end of this article.)

Four freshmen are in the mix for spots in those boats: Long in the Varsity Eight, coxswain Izzi Weiss in the Second Varsity Eight, and Mackenzie King and Georgia Gray in the Varsity Four.

Long said her older teammates have told her little about the NCAA championships, “so I don’t really know what to expect. But I’ve done a lot of elite racing, so I know what it’s like to have the sort of pressure where everything that you’ve done for the last year is coming down to one moment. So I’m lucky in the fact that I’ve had that sort of experience.”

Virginia’s roster typically includes several international rowers, and that’s the case again this year. Long and sophomores Anna Fairs and Ellie Stewart are from England, sophomore Alice Darry from New Zealand, senior Maxime Lubbers from the Netherlands, sophomore Morgan Rosts and junior Ali Zwicker from Canada.

“I think the word gets out that [UVA is] a decent experience for those guys and they talk it up,” Sauer said. “It can be a pipeline of sorts, I guess you could call it. But every kid is different. Every kid wants different things.”

Long hasn’t decided on a major at Virginia. Neuroscience is a possibility, she said, “but most likely it’ll be biology.”

And then?

“I used to want to go to med school,” Long said, “but actually I’d rather go into research, I think, and stay in university as long as I can, either here or in the UK afterwards.”

She’s found that the United States differs more from England than she expected.

“I thought that Western culture was very much the same,” Long said. “Without the team, I don’t think I would have found it as easy. Fortunately because of rowing I’ve been very busy, so I haven’t been as homesick as I once expected. I’ve always been quite independent, so it wasn’t too bad, but honestly the team really helped.

“Everyone has been so welcoming, and in some ways being slightly different” — and speaking with a British accent — “has helped, definitely. Making friends at the start, you always had something to talk about, because you say one word and people are like, `Whoa! You’re not from near here. This is cool.’ It hasn’t been hard. It’s just been different, I’d say.”

Her college experience has been much different than that of friends who stayed in the UK, Long said, “and I think I’m very, very fortunate to have been given this opportunity.”

Scoring breakdown at NCAA regatta:

* VARSITY EIGHT — 66 points for first place, 63 for second, 60 for third and so on. Twenty-second place is worth three points.

* SECOND VARSITY EIGHT — 44 points for first, 42 for second, 40 for third and so on. Twenty-second place is worth two points.

* VARSITY FOUR — 22 points for first, 21 for second, 20 for third and so on. Twenty-second place is worth one point.

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