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Boonsboro grad stretches limits with rowing

July 05, 2010|By JANET HEIM

BOONSBORO -- Going away to college is all about taking advantage of new experiences and opportunities.

Hagerstown resident Andrew Bitner certainly did that as a freshman at the University of Delaware this past school year.

The salutatorian of Boonsboro High School's class of 2009, Bitner joined the men's club rowing team at Delaware not long after he arrived on campus. He played basketball and soccer in high school.

He said the men's rowing team heavily recruited walk-ons on campus.

"I really had no idea what it was all about," Bitner said of the rowing team.

After a high school career jam-packed with academics, sports, school organizations and volunteer work, Bitner said he wanted to take a break.

Delaware's Club Night came and Bitner decided to check out the options on campus. After being "swarmed by the coaches" of the rowing team, he opted to give it a try.

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"I wasn't planning on doing it, but it was probably one of the best things I did freshman year. It shaped you physically and mentally," said Bitner, 18.

He was on the freshman/novice eight (heavyweight) club team. The heavyweight category means each of the rowers generally weighs more than 175 pounds.

Most of the good heavyweight rowers are recruited by Ivy League universities, Bitner said.

Bitner's boat of eight rowers and one coxswain were all walk-ons, except for one recruit. They ended up being the top-ranked freshman heavyweight boat at the university.

The coxswain wears a microphone and provides helpful information to the rowers -- how long they've been rowing and the number of strokes per minute -- motivation on the course and a plan from the coach if he had one.

The coach of University of Delaware's men's rowing team is 27-year-old Joe Kleiman.

Unlike other sports, crew, another term for rowing, is a year-round sport. Races, called regattas, are held in the fall and spring, with the most important events in the spring. Winter is used for training, mainly on rowing machines, which is called "erging"

"It's a big commitment," Bitner said.

Fall races, which lasted about 12 to 18 minutes, are about distance. Rowers were tested inside on rowing machines for 20 minutes to see who had the fastest times.

"The first 10 minutes are fine. The last 10, you're fighting for your life. It feels like there's nothing left when you're done. You just want to pass out," Bitner said.

The physically demanding sport took a toll. Bitner, who is 6 feet 5 inches tall, arrived on campus weighing 215 pounds and lost 30 pounds by the spring season. But all the training helped improve his fitness level.

"I'm in the best shape I've ever been in," he said.

Bitner said he had some doubts during the fall about whether he'd make it through the entire season, but he stuck it out. The team started out with five freshman boats but was down to 2 1/2 by racing season. Bitner said two or three of the recruited heavyweights quit the team, either due to injuries or for academic reasons.

As a chemical engineering major with a minor in computer science and interest in getting an MBA, Bitner knows the difficulty of balancing academic work and commitment to the rowing team. Team members trained six days a week, with Sunday being their only day off. Bitner gave up winter and spring break at home, staying on campus to train with the team.

The team usually left campus for river practices at 4:30 p.m. and got back to campus at 7:30 p.m., some nights too late to get dinner in the dining halls. At least once a week, 5 a.m. practices were also held.

Bitner then had obligations to fulfill to a fraternity to which he pledged before he could hit the books.

"You almost have to put crew before school. When you're in a boat of eight people who are counting on you for a weekend race, if you miss one practice, you have a lot of people mad at you," Bitner said.

The spring races are 2 kilometers, with finishing times of about 6 minutes. The team's hard work was focused on the final race of the season, the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia.

The Dad Vail is the largest regatta in the country, with more than 3,000 athletes competing from 120 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada.

Bitner's boat finished with a bronze medal, missing the second place finish by 0.1 second and gold by less than 2 seconds. Still, he and his teammates were proud of the results.

"We were the fastest we've ever been in the last 500 meters of the last race. Our boat peaked," Bitner said.

He said he rowed his best in that race. As a result, Bitner's boat, which started the season ranked fifth in an American Collegiate Rowing Association poll, worked its way up to second, right behind Orange Coast College and ahead of University of Michigan, Purdue University and University of Virginia.

University of Delaware's men's team won the Dad Vail overall-points trophy for the third consecutive year, Bitner said.

He hopes to do crew again sometime during his college career, but will most likely take next year off to focus on academics. For now, he's enjoying being home for the summer and lifeguarding at Claude M. Potterfield Pool.

"It's been a big part of college for me ... I like challenging myself. That's why I like crew," Bitner said.

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