Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
If you follow rowing, you know most rowers started in a different sport at a young age before finding their stroke on the water.
Lakewood Ranch High senior and Sarasota Crew rower Ava Vandroff did, too, but her path to signing with the University of Louisville, as she did on Nov. 14, was different than most others. Vandroff tried a bunch of sports as a youngster, like basketball and soccer, but her favorite sport, the one she spent seven years of her life perfecting, starting in first grade, was figure skating.
Yes, Vandroff went from the most graceful of human activities — something considered by many to be an art form, something that can bring you to tears out of sheer beauty — to rowing, one of the most demanding, punishing sports there is. She started in eighth grade, after trying it at a Crew summer camp. Vandroff said she sometimes leaves rowing practice with bloody hands, and her palms and fingers are home to numerous scars.
“She got in my car after her first practice, and she was filthy, smelly and dirty,” said Beth Vandroff, Ava’s mother.
There was no switch that flipped in Vandroff’s mind when she left figure skating to focus on rowing full time. She did them simultaneously in eighth grade, but that was it.
Vandroff said she still misses the ice, but she figured out as a freshman that her skating career was plateauing, and her rowing career was just then taking off, and more likely to earn her a scholarship.
It was also tough on her parents, because figure skating practice was in Ellenton before school, and rowing practice was in Osprey after school. She had to pick one, and Beth Vandroff said he believes her daughter found her comfort zone with rowing. Ava has never been the kind of girl to obsess over makeup, Beth said, and she joked that while Ava was a good technical figure skater, she was never as graceful as other girls.
I still could not believe it. Can you imagine Michelle Kwon getting in an eight-person scull and grinding away? What about Nancy Kerrigan, or Tonya Harding? Actually, Tonya Harding seems fit for rowing’s brutality, but the others? I cannot.
“The first time I tried it, I was like, ‘What is this big oar? There are seats in the boat? How does this work?’” Vandroff said. “But I loved it. It just feels good (to row). I cannot explain it.
“Every rower has quitting thoughts, usually after a tough practice, but I cannot quit it. Even though it is exhausting, it is worth it in the end. Crew is a special sport.”
Her rowing path was not without waves. Ava said her first singles race saw her flip her boat three times in five minutes. She gained 20 pounds of muscle from rowing and never lost it.
She was not turned off by the physical nature of the sport, she said, as figure skating requires more strength than people think, especially in the legs. She has had some wild experiences too, like her boat running into a gaggle of geese in July at the 2018 Club National Championships in Camden, N.J.
Her biggest challenge was size. Vandroff is 5-foot-1, and most collegiate rowers are at least 5-foot-10. In order to try for a scholarship, Vandroff spent her senior year with the Crew as a coxswain, using her voice to lead her boat instead of her oars. This versatility, leadership and success — Vandroff helped her Penn Athletic Club summer team to a bronze in the U19 women’s 8+ at those club championships, the only Penn AC boat to medal or even make the finals of a race — led to Louisville offering a spot. She will be both coxing and rowing at the school, something that makes Vandroff even more excited.
Hopefully she will find smooth sailing at the collegiate level. If not, Vandroff is rugged enough to handle whatever is thrown at her, and she will do it with the elegance she learned on the ice.