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Newport Aquatic Center junior rowers adjusting to life out of the water

The Newport Aquatic Center boys' varsity 8 boat pulls through the Back Bay during a practice in 2018. The Newport Aquatic Center facility has been closed since March 21 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The CIF canceled its spring sports championships Friday, a formality indicating that high school sports are over until at least the fall.

Club sports have been no less affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Newport Aquatic Center shut its doors March 21, putting an end to its programs indefinitely. Student-athletes in the successful junior rowing program have been unable to get into the water.

Newport Aquatic Center coach Nick D’Antoni said that the sport’s governing body, USRowing, has canceled all youth events through June. NAC was scheduled to compete last weekend at a big regatta, the San Diego Crew Classic.

“We were doing a lot of groundwork to ramp up and peak later in the year,” said Sage Hill School junior Griffin Lewis, a member of the varsity 8 squad. “We were really looking forward to getting into the speed work and being able to get faster as a team. Just as we were starting to ramp up, this whole thing came around … [The San Diego Crew Classic] was the one that we were going to finally show that all the fundamental work we’ve done was going to pay off. Then, that got canceled.”

A few members of the team like senior captain Ryan McCarthy and juniors Jackson Banta and Cannon Kenney were on the men’s lightweight 8+ boat that won the youth national championship last June in Florida. They will now be unable to defend their title, as that event also has been canceled.

McCarthy, Banta and Kenney all attend Newport Harbor High — or, perhaps more accurately at the moment, take “distance learning” classes from home.

D’Antoni said the team has remained close. He sends emails once a week that detail workouts the rowers can do at home. Newport Aquatic Center lent many of them ergometers (indoor rowing machines).

The team has been conducting Zoom meetings on Fridays, D’Antoni said. Last Sunday, they even did an “erg” workout via Zoom.

“I think it’s been good to see some familiar faces that you haven’t seen in a while,” said McCarthy, who is bound for Harvard. “Seeing everyone just makes everyone more excited for just what we can salvage of the rest of the rowing season.”

D’Antoni said he is optimistic that the team could participate in some form of event over the summer.

“We haven’t really moved into the, ‘Let’s just call it a season and focus on next year,’” he said. “We’ve had a lot of the seniors participating too, which is nice, because I was a little concerned that they were going to be the ones caught up in the most sense of limbo. We obviously have a really good senior class. As much as the season is behind us, it was important to me that they didn’t lose their team, because they’re not yet teammates in a new college program. They don’t have that community of support yet. It was really important to me that we maintain a sense of connection and a focal point for those guys, so they know they have a support network.”

Peter Adams, a coxswain, is a Mater Dei High senior and Costa Mesa resident. He’s headed to Boston University next year.

Some of the juniors have seen changes in the recruiting process, though Lewis said he’s been talking to programs including Wisconsin, University of San Diego, Boston University and Oregon State.

“I don’t have a sport right now,” said Lewis, who also plays wide receiver on the Sage Hill football team. “I’ve never not had a sport. I started sports before kindergarten, and this is the first time that I haven’t had anything to do. That’s a big change.”

D’Antoni said the whole team has done a good job maintaining a positive mindset. He said everyone is most looking forward to a time when they can get back to the boathouse and be together again, whenever that may be.

Until then, Zoom will have to do.

“You spend 20-plus hours a week down there [at Newport Aquatic Center], and it takes over your life,” said Banta, who added that he did manage to get in a solo outrigger boat ride on Tuesday. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because I love it. It’s the best part of my day every day. With it being gone, it’s like a hole. It’s like somebody stripped a hole out of your life. It’s weird.”

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