Local girls helping to lead IU rowing team

Coxswain Libby Brown (in red coat with back turned) and Ella Cunningham (in front of Brown in seat 8) are competing for the Indiana University rowing team at a recent event.

Ella Cunningham and Libby Brown struck up a friendship this year at Indiana University.

Rowing brought the two together this past school year.

Cunningham, who is a Concord High School graduate, began her rowing career as a freshman at Indiana, while Brown, who is a Northridge High graduate, decided to try rowing as a sophomore.

"I didn't know her in high school," said Cunningham about Brown. "She looked kind of familiar when we got to (rowing) practice. We told each other where we went to school and became closer."

"Ella told me she was from the area and I said, 'no way'," said Brown.  "That was cool."

The two took different paths to get introduced into rowing. 

Cunningham played volleyball for all four years in high school. She was also a diver on the swim team as a freshman and ran track as a freshman and sophomore.

Creating a profile on a recruiting website helped Cunningham get noticed. 

"I was actually going to college to play volleyball," Cunningham said. "I got an e-mail from a former novice rowing coach at Indiana University. The coach saw me at a volleyball tournament in Indianapolis at the Convention Center. A week later she e-mailed me and told me I had the proverbial, 'it', that you look for in explosive sports and their athletes. My response was that you've got the wrong Ella Cunningham. I've never been in a boat before. I've kayaked before. She told me that I could be taught how to row and how to go fast. 

Cunningham watched an Indiana University rowing practice during spring break of her senior year of high school.

"It just kept fueling my interest," Cunningham said. "I thought the sport looked cool and it was something I was interested in so I kind of ran with it."

Cunningham's family was surprised after hearing the news.

"Rowing, what's rowing?," Cunningham said about her family's reaction. "We've never heard of that. My dad was looking up information on the sport. He said it was OK for me to get into rowing."

Athletics weren't part of Brown's past.

"Growing up I tried out for a lot of different sports," Brown said. "I was in competitive show choir, which is competitive singing and dancing, in high school. I had no plans in college of joining a sport or a team. 

"My first year at Indiana I wasn't doing anything. I was just getting used to college. But I felt I was missing something not being part of a team. My freshman year I felt almost bored. I needed to join something so I looked into things that Indiana offered and different clubs that I could join. I came across a flyer for rowing and it said, 'no previous experience needed'. I didn't think that could be right. I went to a call-out meeting, talked to coaches, and found out information about rowing.  

"My mom really encouraged me to go try out and see if I like it. When I found out I made the team she said I should try for it a year and see if I like it. My whole family was really supportive." 

Cunningham and Brown faced the year round challenges that rowing presented and were part of a 9-girl First Novice 8 boat. Rowing beginners are on novice boats. Novice rowers aren't on scholarship, but after a year in the sport a rower earns a scholarship.

Training in the fall and winter comes before the season starts in the spring.

"In the fall you row in the water when the weather is nice," Cunningham said. "By Thanksgiving up until mid-March were inside. Rowers use a rowing machine which is called an erg.

"A race during the season is two kilometers (1.24 miles), but in training you do a lot more mileage. Your pushing your body to fail. Coach told us to be good at rowing you have to fail. You have to push your body like it has never been pushed before. The coach's goal is to make you throw up and if you pass out the trainer is there to help you. You see where your body can go. Can you go over the edge? It's definitely all mental. All the coaches say that your mind is the only limit. It's your mind only that can make you stop. You just try to turn that off and just keep going."

That intense training was among the reasons many first year rowers didn't stick with the sport.

"One hundred girls tried out for the team," Cunningham said. "There were 46 at the start of the season and only 12 by Thanksgiving."

Indiana's rowing team was comprised of two Varsity 8 boats, three Varsity 4 boats and a Novice 8 and a Novice 4 boat.  

When it came to positioning, Cunningham was in seat 8 on the Indiana University Novice 8 boat, while Brown was in the coxswain seat.

"It's called the stroke seat," Cunningham said about her role. "I pretty much set the pace for how fast the boat is going. Everybody is mimicking what I'm doing and how fast I'm going. You have to make sure you're at the correct pace for strokes per minute.

"Libby is in front of me and she has a little miniature T.V. screen (speed coach). It's able to read how many strokes per minute you're doing. It tells me if I need to speed up with the strokes or slow down and lengthen out."

There are also other responsibilities for Brown.

"I would say I'm an extension of the coach when the coach can't be in the boat," Brown said. "I would try to do whatever she would do during the race. The coxswain's job is to get everyone warmed up correctly, keep everyone's nerves under control and execute the race plan." 

Because of her 5-foot-4 height, Brown will remain as a coxswain the rest of her career. 

"I went to tryouts thinking I was going to be a rower and not do anything else, but I'm too small to row at 5-4," Brown said. "Are shortest rower is 5-5 and that's really rare to have someone that size rowing. Super tall girls are usually rowing."

Cunningham is perfectly suited to row with her 5-foot-11 height.

"You definitely want to be tall as a rower," Cunningham said. "Extra length helps you get an oar back into the water further and that helps you get more water to push forward."

When competition got underway, Brown admitted to some nervousness.

"The warm-up when the stake boat was lining us up was more nerve-wracking than the actual race," Brown said. "I tried to be calm and keep everyone else calm. 

"But once the first race started I had so much fun."

Cunningham and Brown are quickly learning how to succeed in the water. Competing against other First Novice 8 boats, the duo was part of a boat that placed third with a time of 6:41.039 at the Big 10 Championships on May 19th at Devil's Lake in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The Hoosiers finished fifth overall at the event.

"Being it was our first Big 10 Championship race we don't know what to expect," Brown said. "Coming out third I was really proud of those girls. They put in so much work and I'm glad they ended up accomplishing something to show for it. 

"It was a great experience, but there's still a ton to learn for next year. The most challenging thing is the day-to-day mindset. You have to understand that every single day matters and that affects how you perform. It can be death by 1,000 cuts. You have to make sure you're eating right, recovering like you're suppose to and getting the right times during workouts. All the little things matter in the end. Whatever you do on a particular day affects the next day and the end of the week. You have to tell yourself that other schools are also working hard and you've got figure out what you have to do to be better than them.

"By less than a second we lost out on second place at the Big 10 Championships. You say to yourself what could we have done to get that little extra to finish second. We never understood that during the season. We just survived each day and each workout. We could have made more things a priority."  

Cunningham is majoring in biology with hopes of being an oral surgeon for a career, while Brown is majoring in fitness and wellness and she hopes to have career in that field. 

When asked to choose between volleyball and rowing as a favorite sport, Cunningham didn't hesitate with her answer.

"Rowing," she said. "I like the risk and reward of it. Flying and dying is what you call it. You're confident and going out really hard, but unable to perform at your best for the second half of your workout. You gain the experience the next time to give that little extra the next time for a workout. It was just great to see myself getting faster on a rowing machine."

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