AS THE SUN rises over the Schuylkill at 5 a.m., Saint Joseph's senior rower Debbie Bateman enters the Varsity 8 boat and, with her seven teammates, propels the shell swiftly and quietly along the water.
"It energizes you. You get your blood flowing as the sun rises," Bateman said. "The atmosphere was a huge lure for me. You're right in the middle of nature. That draws people into rowing, and then the team orientation keeps them there."
The Hawks' Varsity 8 and Quad boats, which Bateman competes in, won the Atlantic 10 Conference championship this year for the first time in school history. Last year, her Varsity 8 squad finished second in the conference but won the Kelly Cup, claiming the title of city champions.
Tomorrow and Saturday, Bateman and the Hawks will set their sights on the 120 other boats competing in the 71st annual Dad Vail Regatta, which the Hawks' Varsity 8 last won 3 years ago. Bateman was a freshman in that boat, having served as a member of the Varsity 8 throughout her entire collegiate career.
"It's tough to row three really good races in a row," women's crew coach Gerry Quinlan said. "We're seeded third - Sacramento State is fourth, Buffalo is second and Grand Valley State is first. But there's so much parity on the women's side. When we won, we were seeded seventh. Since Debbie won it her freshman year, it'd be great to go out winning. We've been working for this since the first day of practice in September."
Bateman started rowing her freshman year of high school in Longport, N.J. She was a three-sport athlete then, participating in cross country and swimming as well as crew.
"The sports she chose in high school require discipline and endurance," Quinlan said. "She's very driven in everything she does, and it shows. She's just such a great leader. The other girls model themselves after her. Whether it's running, biking or swimming, she always wants to win, to do the best. When girls get down, she picks them up and pushes them in a natural way. With only one full-time coach, she's the go-to for a lot of our underclassmen."
Quinlan chose Bateman as a co-captain back in her sophomore year, and she has been one ever since. An incident last year during the San Diego Crew Classic demonstrates that despite the individual honors she has accumulated - all-conference in 2008 and '09, as well as A-10 Women's Rowing Student-Athlete of the Year for both years - Bateman focuses solely on the team's results.
During the first 20 strokes and before the Varsity 8 could even finish its starting sequence, Bateman's oar broke out of its oarlock, sinking into San Diego's Mission Bay.
"We had actually talked about something like this happening the night before," Bateman said. "The only person who had to cross the finish line was the captain. So, I just reacted. I was dead weight in the boat, so I got up and jumped out. And despite only having seven girls, we didn't place last and had the fastest time over the last 50 meters of the race."
Bateman said that camaraderie, that bond, with her teammates will be what she misses most when she graduates in May with a 3.9 GPA in marketing.
"You become so close with the people you row with. You develop such a sense of trust," said Bateman, who will receive the Class of 1950 Award presented at graduation to the top male and female senior athletes. "It's definitely practical, real-world experience. For every single question I'm asked during a job interview, I can cite an example from crew."
As of right now, Bateman said continuing in crew after graduation depends on where she ends up with a job. She is looking into jobs in sales and marketing. So far, she has interviewed with Hershey's and a number of pharmaceutical companies.
"She'll be a welcome addition wherever she goes," Quinlan said. "She certainly could join one of the national teams or some of the top clubs [for crew]. She has the chops to do it."
What: Dad Vail Regatta
Where: Fairmount Park along Kelly Drive, 2 miles north of Boathouse Row
When: Friday and Saturday. Qualifying heats are all day Friday, beginning about 7 a.m. and lasting until about 5 p.m. The semifinals start Saturday morning, with the finals in 19 events running from 1 p.m. to about 4:30 p.m. later that day.
Transportation: SEPTA: Take the 32 or 38 bus, which runs through Center City, to John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Pennsylvania Boulevard. Exit close to the Art Museum and look for regatta shuttle buses. These shuttle buses make four stops: Canoe Club, the Grand Stand, Rowers' Village and the Art Museum, following a route from the parking area to Kelly Drive and then the Art Museum on Pennsylvania Avenue. They are free.
Parking: Kelly Drive is closed, so it's necessary to park in remote lots with a fee of $5-$8. Shuttle buses transport spectators to the regatta.