Pine-Richland crew coach Florin Curuea drifts his motorboat alongside the team’s five scull and sweep-oar boats and signals the start of the Rams’ next six-minute training race.
It’s a rare calm May afternoon on the Ohio River near Neville Island. The water is smooth as glass once the boats are out of the swift channel near the Groveton Boat Club, Pine-Richland’s boathouse in Robinson Township.
The two girls' boats get a 30- to 60-second head start. Then at Curuea’s command, the high school boys dip their oars into the water, and the chase is on.
“Maximum effort; concentrate on form,” Curuea instructs as the boats glide smoothly and quietly under the Interstate 79 bridge.
A former World Rowing Champion and Romanian Olympic Team member, Curuea said he had to get his English up to speed first when he moved to the United States and began coaching Pine-Richland crew in 2007.
“It’s pretty amazing that he came here to be our coach and he’s not even from our country,” Rams junior Allie Marshall said.
The team has no trouble understanding the meaning of today’s practice. It’s all about building strength and stamina for season-ending races, including the Midwest Juniors Rowing Championships May 21-22 in Cincinnati.
After expending energy at the rate of about 26 to 28 oar strokes per minute, most of the rowers are winded at the end of the drill.
“He definitely pushes us, but he still makes it fun,” Marshall said. “Rowing is challenging. There’s only been a few times I was definitely overwhelmed.”
Crew spring season begins March 28 and ends May 28.
Curuea doesn’t promise his rowers they’ll be international champions or row on full scholarships for Harvard or Yale, only that they will be challenged and have fun -- and can take the sport to any level they choose.
“It’s better for a rower to win against themselves, and at the end of the day, the results are coming,” Curuea said. “That’s all you can do. Just bring my maximum.
“The best part is testing yourself out on the water, but to be good out on the water for nine months a year, you need to do other steps on land like weightlifting and running and stretching and flexibility,” he said.
“It’s like building a cake. One day the flour, one day the sugar, the next day the eggs. So basically, all the practices are brought into an order to accomplish the goal.”
Crew is a four-season sport, despite icy winters along Pittsburgh’s rivers.
“It’s a complete routine, and the kids can decide what season they want to do,” Curuea said. “It’s a sport that can help a student develop into a healthy person. This is a sport you can do for a lifetime, and it’s a great sport for kids who want to work hard and earn a scholarship.”
Pine-Richland has three former female athletes rowing for college teams, Curuea said.
Crew is not a WPIAL-sponsored sport. Most of the financial burden falls on the parents and students, who conduct numerous fundraisers.
Curuea estimated that it takes more than $70,000 to outfit a team with a complete lineup of sculls and sweep-oar boats that seat one-, two-, four- and eight-man crews.
“At this time, we have a full fleet of equipment, almost brand new,” he said.
Curuea likes to mix his crews with novices and experienced athletes.
“I try to mix rowers who are fast with rowers who need motivation,” he said. “It’s hard to sell this sport to a person, because they have no idea what they are getting into. I try to take it slowly, make it fun, and then you start to build up the workouts.”
While Pine-Richland raced against its own rowers during last week’s practices, North Allegheny’s crew worked out nearby along the Ohio River. Fox Chapel, Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair, Central Catholic, Oakland Catholic, North Catholic, Taylor Allderdice, Winchester Thurston, Hampton, Shaler and Ellis also participate in the sport.
“I do not try to have us pass other high school programs,” Curuea said. “I want the kids to pass themselves. When the kids pass themselves, that’s a win. I guarantee that if the kids pass themselves, the results are going to come.”
Pine-Richland senior Madi Merhaut spent the afternoon in a four-crewmember scull (rowing with two oars, one oar in each hand) with three other girls.
“I’m a really competitive person, and in rowing, the competition is with yourself,” Merhaut said. “You’re trying to power through everything, and that’s really great.”
Sophomore Paul Notarangelo is a first-year member of the team, and went out in the eight-man sweep-oar boat (one oar per rower). The boat included a coxswain, which is the oar-less crew member who sits facing the rowers and shouts instructions. The coxswain is responsible for steering and race strategy.
“It seemed really fun to get out on the water,” Notarangelo said. “I tried it during the summer and really got into it.”
Anne Pfennigwerth founded the Pine-Richland Crew Team in 2002. In 2007, Pine-Richland School District recognized crew as a club sport when the team came under Curuea’s leadership. Mark Roberts and Maria Deiuliis serve as assistant coaches for the current team.
Curuea also leads an adult program and has rowers ages 25 to 60.
Curuea won the 2002 World Rowing Championship in Genoa, Italy, and defended the title in 2003 in Belgrade, Serbia.