Going With the Flow

Lottie Gidal, News and Sports Editor

The Iowa River is one of the most polluted in the country, but Mae Crooks ‘19 doesn’t care. For two hours every day, she is gliding on top, taking in the feel of the water beneath her oars.

“During the spring and summer it goes from dark to light and it’s really pretty to see the sunrise,” Crooks said. “There’s really no way to describe it. I love those moments.”

As a member of the University of Iowa juniors rowing team, Crooks practices five times a week year-round in the early hours of the morning, with 10 other students from other Iowa City high schools.

Until just a few years ago, the team was made up of those aged 14-76. But with more support from the University of Iowa, a ‘juniors’ team was created separate from those with adults. Now Crooks rows with exclusively high school students, including some others from City High, such as seniors Beatrice Kearns, Sidney Wilson, and Kate Wilson.

“To be on the juniors team you have to be a little weird, you can’t just be normal,” Crooks said. “You have to be this great combination of fun and serious that makes us all mash together really well. You get really close because it is such a small team and you’re spending so much time with them when you’re looking your absolute worst or when you’re feeling your absolute worst.”

When someone walks into our boat bay you want them to feel welcome and part of this club and part of this team.”

— Mae Crooks '19

When Crooks first began rowing in eighth grade, she was surrounded by high-school students and adults, and remembers feeling a little intimidated.

“You always have new people coming in, and it’s so hard when you’re a new person, to guide your way through and have them accept you. But honestly, that’s one of our biggest goals, is that when someone walks into our boat bay you want them to feel welcome and part of this club and part of this team,” Crooks said.

After such a positive experience with the sport in high school, Crooks knows she would like to continue rowing in college. Even so, she doesn’t see it as her main focus.

“For college, I am hoping to go to the University of Minnesota, which does have a rowing team, so I would probably be a walk-on to their novice, and then try to get up to varsity,” Crooks said. “The main reason I chose them is because of a major they have. For some people, they only want to go to a college that has a really good rowing team because they want to be able to go beyond the collegiate level, which I don’t really see myself doing.”

In a sport that is largely dominated by women at the collegiate level, rowing has become a magnet for schools looking to balance their sports funding after the passage of Title IX, the 1972 legislation that mandates gender equity in educational programs receiving federal funding.

“The novice team at Iowa is huge, it’s a really easy way to offset the scholarships you give your football team,” Crooks said. “[On my team] it’s mainly a female sport. We used to have three guys and now we have two.”

Crooks said that because everyone on the team has different ambitions for themselves, it can sometimes be hard to balance people’s goals.

“It’s hard when you have one person in the boat who’s doing this more as a fun thing and then the rest of your boat is pushing themselves as hard as they can every single day. It’s difficult to take those two groups and mash them together and hope everyone’s happy, because the person next to me might be rowing more for fun, and I’m doing it as a way to prep for college to get faster and stronger. And I’m not saying they aren’t, but I’m pushing myself every day to get better.”

Crooks credits her coach, Danelle Stipes, with helping her learn to work around this.

“She just comes in and she’s just like, ‘If you are a very competitive person, you need to push yourself but in a way that’s friendly, so it’s not yelling at each other, it’s not trying to outpull someone else, it’s just you focusing on yourself and seeing how you’re affecting your boat. If it’s going bad, sometimes you can’t go hard all the time, you have to pick and choose,’” Crooks said.

Because the juniors team isn’t an official sport of the University of Iowa, at times the group has to work hard to receive the right amount of funding or support for their practice and competition needs. Crooks says Stipes is immensely helpful in this regard.

“There’s a lot of situations where sometimes the university doesn’t treat us as a team, they treat us as a club, but there are people who are working really hard so it’s hard to be taken in a not serious way,” Crooks said. “So she does a really good job of making sure that everyone feels like they are taken seriously.”

Even without other high schools to compete against, the juniors team is still able to compete.

“We are in charge of our own setup and getting out to regattas. The university just supplies us with a truck,” Crooks said.

Throughout the fall the team has what they call ‘head races,’ which are long distances such as five and six kilometers. The placings are based on time, not a photo finish, so the rowers race against the clock and not the other boats on the water.
But the weather does not always permit the athletes to be out on the open water, so during the winter they use the indoor rowing machines at the field house, in addition to a year round core routine.

“It’s been fun to see how your muscles change and get bigger because I used to be really skinny, I’ve gained a lot of muscle weight,” Crooks said. “It’s fun to see how your body changes when you’re doing something you really like to do.”

It’s fun to see how your body changes when you’re doing something you really like to do.”

— Mae Crooks '19

Other member of the team often run or swim in addition to rowing, but Crooks has a history of joint problems that can make it difficult to participate in high impact sports such as running, volleyball, softball, or basketball. So in a sport that most high schools don’t or simply lack the resources to offer, Crooks has had to go out of her way to find the thing she loves to do.

“It’s made a huge difference in my life. The people that you meet there, you don’t meet people like that every single day,” Crooks said. “You learn from the adults and from the other people on the team what you need to be like to thrive in this sport, and once you learn that you never let it go.”

After rowing for over five years, Crooks has truly found herself at home in the sport.

“When I think about rowing and our team it makes me happy,” Crooks said. “If you’re doing something and it doesn’t make you happy, then why are you doing it? That’s why I row, that’s the real reason. Not to get a scholarship to college, I do it because it’s fun and it makes me happy.”