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Different strokes: How two struggling athletes became champions

Amanda Lorei tried a passel of sports when she was in grade school - basketball, field hockey, soccer, track, cross-country - and said she failed at every single one.

Amanda Lorei tried a passel of sports when she was in grade school - basketball, field hockey, soccer, track, cross-country - and said she failed at every single one.

"I did really almost any sport that was available to me at the time . . . and I was really a liability on the field in any sport I was in," she said.

Sara Romano participated in a bunch of sports, too. You name it, she said, and she did it, and was pretty good at it until fourth or fifth grade.

"Then I just started getting slow and lazy," Romano said. "I mean, I still did them, but I wasn't anything special at any of them."

Lorei and Romano then tried rowing. And surprise, surprise, look where they are now.

The Merion Mercy seniors will compete next week on the sport's biggest stage, the Henley Women's Regatta on the River Thames in England.

Soon after that, it'll be on to college - and rowing for NCAA Division I programs.

Lorei, who has rowed for four years, will compete for Stanford. Romano will take her three years of crew experience to Columbia.

What caused the athletic turnaround?

"It doesn't take a lot of talent to row," Romano said. "You just have to be strong."

Her coach, Mike Brown, wasn't nearly as blunt.

"The best thing about high school rowing is you don't have all these AAU rowing programs around the country from sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. So everybody is in the same boat when they start their freshman year," Brown said. "If you're an uncoordinated, dorky athlete, yeah, you can be really good, because it's probably not a coincidence that the harder you work, the faster you go.

"The sport requires balance, endurance, and power. You can get weight lifters in here, and they're not going to make the boat go fast just because they're strong."

Lorei and Romano are the lone seniors on the Henley-bound crew, and they will team with Emily Buongiorno, Elissa Jensen, and coxswain Maddie Ratfield in the varsity four at the famed, head-to-head competition.

Baldwin School also will row at the regatta, scheduled for June 17-19. St. Joseph's Prep and Malvern Prep boys will be in the Henley Royal Regatta two weeks later.

Merion's four is coming off last weekend's gold-medal performance at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America's national championships. The Golden Bears defeated E.L. Crossley, the Canadian crew that had beaten them a week earlier at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, by more than four seconds.

The deadline for Henley applications was Monday, Brown said. He would not have applied, he added, had his crew not won the national title. "Unless you're the fastest crew in America," he told his rowers during the season, "you're not going."

Brown has been coach since the Merion Mercy program started in 2005. So obviously, with this being the team's first national championship, this also will be its first Henley.

"Apparently, the scholastic champions of England and Scotland and European boats of all kinds are going to be there," Lorei said, "so we're really excited about that, getting to race internationally."

Lorei, who lives in Wynnewood, joined the team as a freshman. Before that, her lone crew experience had come in a two-week learn-to-row camp in the summer before her eighth-grade year.

"I've been extremely unathletic for most of my life," Lorei said. "I'm still so uncoordinated. I was just never in shape. I did cross-country for like two or three years, and I would come in second-to-last every meet. And then the last meet, the girl who always came in behind me had quit, so I came in dead-last out of, I don't know, 50 girls."

That back-of-the-pack tendency didn't last long at Merion.

Lorei began her first year in a freshman boat and was promoted to junior varsity before the Stotesbury Regatta. The next year, she was on a JV boat that finished second at the scholastic nationals. She continued to work hard that summer, and in her junior year was part of the varsity eight that earned a bronze medal at nationals.

In April, she set the school record for best 2,000-meter time (7 minutes, 14 seconds) on the "erg" - the ergometer, the rowing machine instrumental to crew training. A month later, she completed the silver-bronze-gold trifecta at nationals.

"If there's 100 meters left in the race and you get even with somebody and I look at all the girls on the team, that's the kid I want in the stroke seat," Brown said of Lorei. "That's why she's stroking the boat."

Whereas Lorei had to work really hard to achieve success, Brown said, Romano had a lot more athletic talent.

Romano, though, wasn't fit. She played field hockey as a freshman at Merion Mercy, then joined crew as a sophomore and competed in a novice boat. After that season, Brown recalled, Romano said she wanted to be on Merion's best boat the next year. So he gave her a workout regimen for the summer.

"I probably didn't think she was going to do any of it," Brown said. When she returned in the fall, he said, "she had shed all of her baby fat, she was great on the erg, she had gone to camps and technically improved her stroke mechanics, and it just snowballed from there."

As she set out to do, Romano indeed made the best boat, the varsity eight that medaled at nationals, as a junior. This year, the Havertown resident, who fills the bow seat on the varsity four, was selected the team's most dedicated rower. Lorei was chosen the most outstanding.

"I feel like you can compare Amanda and I to the Merion crew program, because we started out with nothing. The odds were against us," Romano said. "She is not coordinated. I was not fit. So many things could have gone wrong . . . just two girls that weren't supposed to make things work.

"But here we sit, three years or four years later. We're going to Henley. We're both going to good colleges for this."