North Xtra: Fox Chapel crew making its mark nationally

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Madie Volosky and her teammates at Fox Chapel used to joke as freshmen about rowing at nationals.

Volosky had never even rowed before entering high school; the idea of competing at a national level in a sport with which they had so little experience seemed, to her, laughable.

Three years later, she's one of three girls coming off their third consecutive appearance at the Scholastic National Championships and is eyeing the chance to go four for four as a senior. For Volosky, the opportunity has exceeded her expectations.

"Our freshman year we joked about going to nationals," she said. "We'd say 'Yeah, our freshman year goal is to make it' and we all would laugh and thought it would never happen. Once it did, it kind of became our goal for us to get there every year."

Fox Chapel sent two boats to nationals this year by earning either a gold or silver medal at the Midwest Scholastic Championships on May 10 and 11. Juniors Victoria Covelli, Alexandra Drzewinski and Natalie Walsh and sophomore Katelyn Essey won a gold medal in the Women's Junior Quad while Volosky and fellow juniors Gabrielle Kyle and Cleary Johnston joined sophomore Emily Kiehn and coxswain Elizabeth Constantino, a junior, to win a silver medal in the Women's Junior Four.

The opportunity to compete nationally, Fox Chapel coach Mark Bellinger said, is one of several perks that rowing offers at the high school level.

"That's kind of neat and kind of unique for high school sports to be able to row at the national level and it's one of the things rowing does offer us to be there every year," he said.

Much like Volosky, Bellinger was fairly new to rowing when he began coaching in 1985. Originally from Syracuse, N.Y., he lived in Pittsburgh for roughly a decade before he finally noticed the rowing potential offered by the city's rivers.

Bellinger purchased a kayak to take with him on vacation to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and when he got back to Pittsburgh, he was looking for a place to use it. Eventually, his search brought him to Three Rivers Rowing, where he and a friend began to take sculling lessons. Two years later, he began the crew club at Fox Chapel and coached his daughter. Even after she graduated, he stayed.

Most of the students who row in high school, Bellinger said, have similar stories. It's not uncommon for non-athletes to join, simply to add to their resume for college. Some who are athletic join to play a non-contact sport and avoid the threat of concussions. Once they join, they quickly discover whether or not they can handle the heavy time commitment.

"It can be a huge struggle to balance school work with crew, especially when you're gone almost every weekend in the spring," Volosky said. "But once you're on the team and get that sense of community, that's usually what keeps people rowing every year."

That sense of community, Volosky said, is strengthened by the fact that most rowers come into the sport inexperienced. Nobody attracts more attention than anyone else, and the athletes quickly realize how dependent they have to be on their teammates.

"I would definitely say that most of the people go into it blind their freshman year, which is kind of what makes it fun. Everybody is kind of on the same page, there's no real superstar, and you're all starting out together," Volosky said.

Volosky and her teammates started out together, but none could have predicted what their goals would be upon finishing. Heading to nationals a fourth year in a row is the primary objective, sure, but Volosky has her sights set even higher.

"We've been there three years and we've made it to semis each year; we definitely want to medal at finals," she said. "That's definitely going to be our goal."

Jourdon LaBarber: and Twitter @jourdonlabarber.

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