In 2011, Staples senior Lizzy Youngling was recruited by the University of Virginia. It’s the #1 women’s rowing school in the country — but virtually no one at Staples heard of her achievement.
Now Lizzy is headed to Austria. She’ll represent the US in double sculls at the Under-23 World Championships.
Once again, hardly anyone in town has noticed.
“Rowing is not an easy sport to watch,” Lizzy admits. “Spectators only see one section of the race.”
But it could be the toughest sport on the planet.* And Westport boasts an athlete with a chance to win an international title in it.
Yet Lizzy did not take to rowing like, um, a duck to water. As a child she watched her mother row (“I sat on the launch eating animal crackers,” Lizzy cracks). She thought it looked “incredibly graceful” — but when she got in a boat to try, she “wanted to die.”
In the summer of 2007 she took an introductory class at the Saugatuck Rowing Club. She was so good, she skipped novice competition and went straight to varsity. But she still didn’t care for the sport, and spent the next 2 years riding horses at the Fairfield County Hunt Club.
As a Staples junior, Lizzy went out for track. But shin splints ended that career 2 weeks after it began. Her rowing friends said they loved their new coach. Lizzy returned to the club.
Her career soon raced ahead.
She rowed on a boat that took 2nd at Nationals. That earned her an invitation to the Junior National Team selection camp. She snagged an alternate spot to travel with the Worlds team to Prague. The day before they left, an injury elevated her to a spot in the quads boat — which she helped to a 7th place finish overall.
The next year Lizzy won Nationals, then finished 4th at the World Championships in London (missing a bronze medal by 0.4 seconds).
And — as a freshman — UVa won the NCAA Division I championship.
Last summer was not as successful — she fractured a rib and had mono — but she came back stronger than ever. Right now Lizzy is training in Princeton. The Under-23 World Championships begin July 24.
At last, Lizzy loves rowing.
“You have to work so hard, but it pays off in the end,” she explains.
“The camaraderie is amazing. Your teammates totally understand your bad days, and they’re with you on the good ones.
“And winning! It’s the greatest feeling in the world. You can’t race too much because of the toll on your body, so when you do win, it really means a lot.”
Success in rowing demands “lots of patience, time and energy,” Lizzy says. It helps to be tall, too — she’s 6-1. (“Finally my height pays off,” she laughs).
Though Westport boasts the very successful Saugatuck Rowing Club, the sport’s profile here is not particularly high.
At Staples, she says, it’s considered “the place for people who don’t fit in with other sports.” But rowers might be the best athletes around. “It’s amazing to see these little middle school kids suddenly morph into muscular, powerful people,” Lizzy says.
In her senior spring, Lizzy left Saugatuck Rowing for the GMS Center in New Milford. The national team head coach is there, and Lake Lillinonah boasts a rare 12,000-meter straight course.
Lizzy has come far from last summer, when the day she returned to training after her 2-month layoff she could barely run 20 minutes.
Her current challenges are both physical — she thinks she and teammate Leigh Archer can finish in the top 6 at the World Championship — and financial. Because “no one follows us, and US Rowing has no money,” Lizzy and Leigh must raise $12,000 to compete.
For Lizzy Youngling, that’s just one more race to win.
(Click here to contribute to Lizzy’s US Rowing fundraising campaign.)
*Depending on whether you consider mixed martial arts a “sport.”