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South Jersey rowers earn scholarships through sacrifice

By her estimation, the Cooper River at 5 a.m. is calm, quiet. It probably has something to do, she thinks, with the fact that there are no other boats on the water.

By her estimation, the Cooper River at 5 a.m. is calm, quiet.

It probably has something to do, she thinks, with the fact that there are no other boats on the water.

It's just Christie Castorino and her teammates from the South Jersey Rowing Club.

Before the clocks turned back, morning workouts on River weren't quite as peaceful. It was dark out. They'd have to attach lights to the boat.

"So the only downside," Castorino said, "is that every time you look up at your coach, you have this glaring light in your eye."

These are the scenes that come to mind when Castorino thinks about the work that it takes to earn a Division 1 scholarship in rowing.

And one thing she's certain of at this point: She couldn't have done it alone.

None of them could, they say. And that's what makes their achievements so special.

Castorino, a Syracuse recruit and student at Haddonfield, is one of five senior girls rowers for the South Jersey Rowing Club currently committed to Division 1 rowing programs.

Also on the team is Elise Goldstein, a Cherry Hill East student and University of Wisconsin recruit; Rachel Pierce, also a Cherry Hill East student and a Duquense recruit; Abby McCollough, a Moorestown student and Loyola Marymount recruit; and Caroline Ricciardi, an Eastern student and University of Massachusetts-Amherst recruit.

Five Division 1 recruits is unprecedented for a club still relatively new to the region's rowing scene. Coach Jamie Stack said the club, which started in 2002, currently includes about 20 boys and 20 girls, numbers he'd like to see grow in the coming years.

But considering that rowers aren't even allowed to be recruited until their junior seasons, the ratio of Division 1 recruits is impressive.

"I think it's awesome," said Stack, a rowing lifer who has coached the sport all over the country for more than 20 years, including starting the program at Rutgers-Camden. "This is one of the most rewarding things I've been a part of in this sport, just seeing how these girls' hard work has paid off."

Unlike most sports for which, these days, kids are in training almost as early as they're able to walk, there are physical limits to how early one can get on the water and manipulate the heavy equipment associated with rowing.

"I actually started in sixth grade," Pierce said. "But it's mostly just technical stuff at that point. You're not really in the water too much."

Castorino started the winter of her freshman season, though, like Pierce, rowing runs in her family. And once she did get in the water, she didn't look back.

Both said it didn't take long for them to fall in love with the sport.

"I just loved the camaraderie between teammates, being able to work together to do something great," Castorino said. "And it was honestly from the moment I first got on the water. I knew this was something I wanted to do for as long as I could."

A heightened sense of dedication leads rowers from their high school programs - if their high school even has a program - to the South Jersey Rowing Club.

Being a great rower requires a measured blend of power and endurance.

When you dedicate yourself to the sport, it means dedicating countless hours, training almost every day before and after school 12 months out of the year. Big events take all day, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

But there's also the bonds that come with making these individual sacrifices alongside like-minded people.

The girls at the South Jersey Rowing Club point to the team aspect as perhaps the biggest reason for their success. They pushed each other. They worked together. And they had a ton of fun along the way.

"I keep going back to this, but the team dynamic and the bonds you form are just incredible," Castorino said. "One of the best things about rowing is that there have been so many times when people will predict what the outcome of a race will be based purely on numbers. But it's the crew that really likes their teammates that will win the race. The team dynamic has this crazy way of working its way into the end result of the race."

Notable wins for this team came at the last year's Tail of the Passaic and at the Mid-Atlantic Youth Championships.

The ultimate goal is to qualify for Youth Nationals. The club has sent at least one boat to Youth Nationals every year since it started. Last year, it sent two boats.

And the thought of success in this year's Youth Nationals this June in Saratoga, Fla., is currently pushing the team.

Morning sessions on the Cooper River aren't the norm. But they'll hold them in preparation for big races. And, more telling, they'll schedule them every time one rower has a conflict and can't make an afternoon practice. At every turn, they try to operate as a team, together, on and off the water.

It's part of the sacrifice they make for each other. And it's what makes them even prouder of their shared success.

"I can't say it's not hard to get up for the morning practices. But I don't know too many other things I'd get up at 4 in the morning for other than rowing," Pierce said. "But this is worth it. Being with a group of people you love makes it awesome. We're all dedicated to the sport. We all take it seriously. And to have this success together makes it that much more special."