By Norm Coleman
Two women from separate parts of the world, Ursula Grobler from Pretoria, near Johannesburg, South Africa and Abby Broughton from Tetonia, Idaho (a) have partnered to pursue their dream of bringing Olympic Gold to America.
Their event, little known to Americans is the Lightweight Women’s Double Sculls Rowing event-taking place in 2012 at the London Olympics.
The journey to London begins when the duo will represent the United States at the 2010 World Rowing Championships October 31-November 7 in Lake Karapiro, New Zealand.
The name of the their project is the RowStarProject. (b) Should they accomplish their dream, Ursula and Abby will have done something that never has been done before. Bringing gold to the USA in their event.
Women's lightweight double sculls means that each boat is propelled by a pair of rowers. Scull means that the rower uses two oars, one on each side of the boat; this contrasts with sweep rowing in which each rower has one oar and rows on only one side. As a lightweight rowing competition, the body mass of the rowers is limited to a maximum of 59 kilograms each and 57 kilograms on average or 125 pounds each woman, not to exceed 250 pounds
The last Women's lightweight double sculls competition was held at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing between August 10 and 17 at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park.
Currently living in Bellingham, Washington, Abby and Ursula are dreaming of becoming the first pair of American women to stand on the podium, with gold medals around their necks as the Star Spangled Banner plays in the background, while the crowd waves American flags chanting, “we’re number one.”
But, it is the way these women are going about their Olympic dream - where they came from, how they got here, where they're going - that makes this story the stuff of future legend.
“We are planning on breaking the world record while we’re at it” Ursula laughed while talking about making their dream come true. When Ursula was asked if she believed dreams can come true, she said, “yes, because mine already has. I started rowing at a late stage of my life. I told my coach and mentor, Carlos Dinares, I wanted to row and win a gold medal in the Olympics.”
Ursula explained her core belief thusly: I believe in being unlimited. The vastness of the stars and reaching for them. I know I came to American to move mountains and stroke for stroke aim to accomplish this. The journey of moving over nature has made me touch again the ground by going back to nothing processed in my food, nothing mass-manufactured in my living. But rather the persuit in purity of this heart-driven journey.
When Carlos found out in their phone conversation that Ursula was in her late twenties and had only been rowing for a brief time, he was skeptical. When he asked her what her goals were, Ursula replied, “I wanted to go to the Olympics.”
He suggested that he wasn't the right coach for her and hung-up.
Carlos came to the United States from Barcelona, Spain in 2004. He was an accomplished oarsman, coach, and rowing entrepreneur. Carlos moved his family to Seattle, Washington and offered his coaching services to the University of Washington rowing team.
Dineras placed an ad in the local classifieds, letting it be known that he would be offering his coaching services on a private basis and around this time, Ursula realized that she was serious in pursuing her rowing career and contacted him.
Born in Spain, now an American citizen, Carlos believes “We want to teach people that we set goals, work to get them and push the limits. We are Americans and believe we can do it. We want to make this great country bigger and stronger with our accomplishments.”
Perhaps it was his conscience or wife that got the best of him because Carlos ended up calling Ursula back and consented to coach her. When asked how she would pay for her lessons, Ursula admitted that she didn't have much money but she was an artist and could paint room murals. They agreed on a wall mural for Carlos' young son in exchange for rowing lessons.
Ursula has since opened her own freelance design company and has been certified in nutrition. She is a graphic design artist with a distinctive talent for creating artwork for businesses interested in unique design for letterheads, business cards, etc.
Ursula received her Bachelor Degree in Information Design and Art at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.
Of course, all the hard training and stellar performances wouldn’t be worth a hill of beans if Ursula were unable to become an American citizen in time for the 2012 Olympic games in London. Why not row for her home country of South Africa?
“It’s about competing against the best in the world. It’s about the freedom to do what you want, achieve whatever you want.” said Ursula. Carlos, having become a US citizen himself, share’s her motivations. “In America, you’re free to do things that have never been done before,” he said.
With the help of friends and some well-placed calls from Senator Patty Murray, the citizenship process moved forward briskly and Ursula became an American in April 2010 thus making her eligible to row for the USA.
“It's hard to believe that after months of training, our trip to New Zealand is right around the corner,” Ursula said as she packed her bags to fly to New Zealand with Abby. “These days, it's all about quality, making every stroke as perfect as possible. Every moment on the water, completely focused and feeling the boat. And even off the water, we are constantly thinking about how everything we do can impact the upcoming big races,” Ursula said.
URSULA WANTS TO BE A NANNY IN SEATTLE
Ursula left her hometown of Pretoria, South Africa in 2003 and traveled to Seattle, Washington to work as an au pair. She was a track and swim star in high school and tried some triathlons in the States to keep her athletic juices flowing. But she needed to fill some required educational credits for her au pair program, so she decided to take a beginners' course in rowing on Seattle's Green Lake, figuring it would provide some nice recreation, efore long she was hooked.
Training starts with lifting weights, men and women together. You're also taught the fundamentals of rowing in the same manner. Guys and gals are taught how to position their hands, their arms, their body, their legs, and their feet in the boat. They're taught how to get the most power out of their rowing stroke. Coachs show and tell, rowers go and do. It's quite simple, really.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FEEL
Coach Dineras had his own ideas on how to teach this raw, untrained rookie how to row. Carlos was determined to teach Ursula how rowing successfully should feel. In training Ursula, Carlos would row alongside her describing to her what she should be feeling - in her feet, legs, and arms - as she rowed. He would describe what she should be feeling in the pull of the oar, its catch and release. What she should feel in the push of her legs and the movement of the boat.
Dineras was not concerned with weightlifting as most scull coaches are. “I am not interested in brute force. I wanted controlled, dynamic, efficient power for Ursula. I want her to develop the "feel" for the kind of power she would need to win; the kind of power that she could generate in the right amounts at the right times.”
He had his doubts about training an adult novice such as Ursula because “most elite rowers grow up in the sport,” he said. Within a month, it was obvious to Carlos that Ursula was a fast learner.
He was impressed enough to suggest that they go to Spain for three months and train with the Spanish rowing team. Once in Spain, the results of their unorthodox training became readily apparent. It was somewhat humorous, in fact.
When the women rowers took Ursula through their weight training warm-ups (using lighter weights), they were pumping out thirty repetitions while Ursula could barely do one. But in the boats, Ursula was outrowing everybody.
SUCCESS FOLLOWS QUICKLY
Ursula's first major success came in 2008 when she won the USRowing National Championships in New Jersey rowing in the Women's Single Sculls category. In her first international race, Ursula teamed up with veteran Spaniard, Teresa Mas De Xaxars, to take the silver medal at the 2009 Rowing World Cup in Banyoles, Spain.
But it was at the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston where Ursula grabbed people's attention.
OUT OF THE BLUE SHE COMES
Comprised of three stages, the Head of the Charles Regatta presented three challenges for Ursula. Number one, Ursula had never experienced the race before. Many of her competitors were already familiar with the course - some having rowed and raced on the Charles for a good part of their careers. Secondly, positions in the race were based on rankings, and Ursula would start at the 19th position. With a staggered start, that meant she would not only be racing against the course, but she would also have to maneuver around the eighteen rowers ahead of her. Finally, since it was a timed race, Ursula would not know how she was doing until all the racers were in and their respective times made official.
Arriving the Friday before Sunday's race, Ursula was able to row the course a total of three times. But with a 19th position, staggered start, and the winner unknown until all the times are tabulated, the best advice Carlos could give Ursula was to go "all out" in hopes of bringing in the best time.
This was to establish a pattern between Carlos and Ursula that has carried them to this day: Carlos telling Ursula what's possible and Ursula accepting it - then going out and doing it.
On race day in Boston, conditions weren't the greatest. It was Nor’easter winds mixing with rain, but Ursula did what Carlos told her and went "all out." She finished in a time of 19 minutes, 34 seconds - three seconds ahead of the second place finisher (who happened to be the prior year's Head of the Charles winner).
ALONG COMES ABBY
Abby Broughton, younger than Ursula was born and raised in Tetonia, Idaho. She was a natural born athlete who trained herself to become an expert skier and competed in winter biathlon. Abby enjoys backpacking, cooking and along with her partnerUrsula, has a keen scent for nutrition. “We need to carefully watch our weight and stay under the 125 pounds each that is required to scull in the Lightweight competition.” she said
When asked who her hero was, she proudly said, “my dad Porter who is in training with me. Dad’s big goal is to walk again after being paralyzed in a car accident four years ago. I have no doubt he will” said Abby with confidence in her voice. Abby has two sisters and a brother.
“This event is challenging, extremely difficult and little known in America,” said Porter Broughton, father of Abby.
When asked what is the attraction to women like his daughter, he said, “Rowing is one of few remaining amateur sports, yet is one of the most demanding and grueling sports out there. Rowers row because they have a deep love for the sport and the desire to push their limits both physically and mentally.”
Ann-Toy, mother of Abby said, “We are very proud, excited, looking for fun for our girls and victory” as they prepare to fly to New Zealand to watch the two young women compete.
“I immediately fell in love with rowing during my second year at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. After I graduated, I decided to make rowing a priority and moved to Seattle.”
When asked what her mission was, she said, “It's not about "beating" people, but about letting the success come as a result of striving to be the best we can be, individually, and also in our case, the two of us. By going for the Olympics, we are embracing a huge challenge, knowing perfectly well that it's supposed to be one of the hardest things one could take on, and in doing so, are enriching our lives in so many ways.”
In Seattle, Abby trained with the Pocock Elite Sculling Team coached by Emil Rossey. One year later, she represented the USA at the 2006 World Rowing Championships in Eton, England in the Lightweight Quadruple Sculls.
Abby took two years off to be with her family in Tetonia and help her dad in his recovery from his car accident.
“I knew I wasn’t done with my rowing pursuit, I was inspired by the 2008 Olympics and returned to Seattle to restart full-time training and commit to sculling full time.”
In 2009, she won a bronze medal at the World Rowing Championships in the Lightweight Quadruple Sculls. The two ladies met in April 2009 and paired up to work with coach Dinares to develop the world’s fastest Lightweight Woman’s Double.
ABBY AND URSULA TEAM UP
When asked how she became partners with Abby, Ursula laughed and told the following story of how they met and teamed up. “Abby was a Lightweight rower representing the Pocock Rowing Center in Seattle. She had been trained in the more traditional rowing club approach and it seemed to have served her well – she had enjoyed success at both the national and international levels. Racing in the lightweight quadruple sculls, Abby won the 2009 World Championship Trials. Her team went on to take the bronze medal at the 2009 World Rowing Championships.”
Abby said, “I raced against Ursula - and took note of the unique approach Carlos and Ursula were using in their training. I wondered if I might be able to “tag along.”
At that time, Carlos and Ursula were looking for a solid Lightweight doubles partner. Abby was training in Seattle. “We seemed to be a good match personally, the chemistry was there,” both women acknowledged. Just like Ursula, Abby was a multi-sport athlete (she complements her summer rowing by competing in the biathlon - cross-country skiing and rifle shooting - during the winters).
All parties agreed it would be a good fit. And so, the two singles became a doubles team.
“WE HAVE NO TIME TO LOSE” Carlos said.
The new Abby/Ursula team had just three weeks to prepare for the all-important NSR #2 race in May. The winner of that race would automatically make the US National Team and would represent the United States in the World Cup. Placing in the top four at the World Cup would mean qualifying to compete at the World Championships in New Zealand this November. And, of course, all races lead to the Olympics in 2012.
Despite just three weeks of training together, Carlos had Abby & Ursula rowing in fast unison. At NSR #2 they won their time trial by over 10 seconds and took the final in the Lightweight Women's Pair with a nearly seven second victory. Abby & Ursula had the fastest women's time for the day.
Now it was on to Bled, Slovenia, (near Italy and Austria) where they would race in the first of three World Cup races.
ON THE WORLD STAGE
In the Lightweight Women's Double Sculls, Greece is the reigning World Champion. And at the World Cup in Bled, one of their world champions would be rowing with a new partner. The rowing team from Britain, bronze medalists last year, was also considered one of the favorites. The British pair was in the second year of their partnership.
Representing the United States, Abby Broughton and Ursula Grobler had been together for just over a month.
But it didn't seem to matter as the duo rowed to victory in each of their preliminary heats and semis. This placed them in the finals where they would face both the Greek and British teams. Unfazed, the team took an early lead that they never relinquished, finishing more than five seconds ahead of the runner-up British.
When asked what the future holds for the American team, one of the British race commentators summed it up nicely: "They can only do what they're doing now...which is demolish the competition!"
THE ROW STAR PROJECT
But that brings us back to what is so interesting about Abby, Ursula, and Carlos. “It is not about demolishing the competition. It’s not about the competition at all. It’s about the pursuit of excellence. It’s about rowing for the stars. It’s about doing the best you can do; being the best you can be, doing what’s never been done before,” the trio agreed.
Abby, Ursula, and Carlos want to do it, they want to live it, and they want to share it. And they want to do it right there on Lake Samish in Bellingham where the dream started.
SEATTLE: THE PERFECT PLACE
Surely, Seattle has so much to offer rowing athletes who aspire to Olympic gold. Some consider it the nation’s Mecca for competitive rowers. But the RowStarProject is an effort to create something different. And they’ve chosen Bellingham as the place to do it.
The RowStarProject seeks to create the perfect training experience for rowers. There’s the “in-boat” training with its focus on feel. There’s the “on-shore” training with its emphasis on building dynamic power. There’s a unique approach to athletic nutrition incorporating the principles of the Paleo diet. They’ve even sought perfection in creating the right environment for where a rower trains, eats, and sleeps.
THE OLYMPIC DREAM
The next step is the World Championships in New Zealand this November. (c) If successful there, the focus will turn to the Olympic trials next year. Then it’s on to the 2012 Olympics in London. There, Abby and Ursula are determined to become the first American Lightweight Women’s Doubles to ever win gold. And since they’re pursuing excellence, they’ve decided they will go for the world’s record at the same time.
You wouldn’t expect anything less from these two driven women, who are rowing for the stars.
Here is Ursula's first update from New Zealand:
(a) Trth EastT
(b) October 31 – November 7
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Norm Coleman is a writer, actor and professional photographer. He lives in Half Moon Bay, California.
Credits to: Todd Packard, General Manager of Shuttle Systems in Bellingham. Thank you for your help in compiling so much information about the Row Star Project!