Newport Aquatic Center seniors keep on paddling, in search of a season
Corona del Mar High School senior Melissa MacKenzie is a motivated individual, and that goes beyond her talent as a rower at Newport Aquatic Center.
NAC coach Garrett Pickard remembers last year, when he was training for an ultra-marathon and took the team on a four-mile mountain run.
“I thought I was going to be able to just cook everyone, and Melissa just absolutely destroyed me,” Pickard said. “There was nothing I could do to keep her from beating me on this four-mile run. I was like, ‘Holy [crud].’ They’re really good athletes in a lot of different ways. They have really made me suffer to try and beat them, and that’s pretty awesome.”
On the water, MacKenzie has kept putting in the work as a member of the NAC women’s varsity eight boat, even if she and her teammates are unsure if they will have a season next spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. MacKenzie is one of two team captains, along with Newport Harbor High senior Gabby Babbin.
MacKenzie recently signed to row at UCLA and Babbin at Clemson. The other senior rowers on the varsity eight also recently made their college decisions, with Harbor seniors Miya Meskis and Bella Tobin headed to Cal and SMU, respectively. Newport Beach resident Fiona Batstone, a senior at Tarbut V’Torah, will row at USC.
Other members of the varsity eight include Sailors juniors Sheya Lavin and Chloe Zollman, as well as Orange Lutheran junior Skylar Wilkison. The coxswain is Hannah Hykes, a Newport Harbor sophomore.
“For [the season] to get cut off was definitely a tough moment, but over the summer we still kept training,” said MacKenzie, the younger sister of former CdM girls’ tennis standout Roxy MacKenzie.
“We learned from the past seniors how to be good leaders … so now that it’s our senior year and we’re in a pandemic, it’s super-important to be on our ‘A’ game for the classes below us. We want to represent the NAC varsity women the best we can, so we can really bring honor to the past girls who did the same thing.”
The returning team members seemed poised for a breakthrough season last spring, after winning the Faultline Face-Off Invitational regatta in Orinda in March and helping Newport Aquatic Center sweep at the Cal Cup the following weekend.
These wins came after an impressive 11th-place showing at the Head of the Charles regatta in Massachusetts in October 2019.
But the pandemic hit, and its effects have been devastating to the rowing community. Last year’s squad, which included leaders like Maddy Seybold (now at Stanford), Olivia Krum (Michigan) and Paige Bryant (Columbia), aimed to be the first NAC varsity women’s eight to make nationals since 2016.
“We don’t know if they’re going to get to prove themselves in the water, which is super-disappointing,” Pickard said. “Last year, we were poised to go to the national championship and do well. We certainly would have been medaling at our regional championship had we got to go and do that.”
Still, Pickard, a 2010 Newport Harbor High graduate who rowed at Orange Coast College and the University of Washington, has been impressed with the returning group’s resolve. After doing virtual training through June, they recently returned to varsity eight practices in mid-October, though he said he is unsure that will continue after Orange County returned to the purple tier for reopening. He said the club plans to reassess the situation every two weeks.
This on-again, off-again ebb and flow has been difficult for the seniors, who are still doing their best to provide leadership to the younger grades.
“Even some of the best girls, like Miya and Melissa, they’ve had some mental hiccups for sure,” Pickard said. “It’s definitely been hard. You can see they’re a little frustrated, because there’s not really a particular goal in sight, and they’re very goal-oriented kids.”
And for a club like Newport Aquatic Center, which has produced national championships in its junior men’s rowing program, the women’s boat has had to work hard to earn respect.
“We’re just kind of getting in that position of respect from them,” Babbin said.
“The women’s team hasn’t really been viewed as important as the men’s team until, I would say, these past few years. We just want to pass off the wisdom that we’ve obtained over the last four years, and just help out the younger girls with workouts and that stuff. Most of the seniors commit [to row in college], which is definitely a reward for all of your hard work. All of the girls here are some of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met.”
Pickard said he is hopeful the team will row at the San Diego Crew Classic in March, which has yet to be canceled and is a top event for college and junior rowing teams alike.
Until then, there will be few days off, pandemic or no pandemic. MacKenzie said she has been inspired by program graduates like Edison High alumna Raina Walencewicz, now at Cal, and Peyton Matthews, a Newport Harbor product who went to SMU. Both were seniors when MacKenzie was a freshman.
“Even if we don’t know if there’s going to be a season in the spring, we’re still going to keep working at our personal bests,” MacKenzie said.
“It’s really awesome to see everybody grow as a whole, as a program. When everybody’s working hard, it really brings that sort of energy to the team as a whole. Even if it’s the very bottom person of the program, they’re pushing their hardest, and that’s what makes it an inclusive environment. We bring a positive attitude toward loving the process of training.”
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