Pictured: Heavyn Dreher of Grand Island will compete in the Head of the Charles races this weekend as a member of the St. Catharines Rowing Club.
by Larry Austin
Heavyn Dreher will compete with the fastest rowers in America when she travels this weekend to a regatta in Massachusetts, but the trip there had anything but smooth water.
Dreher, a 16-year-old who attends Grand Island High School, will compete in the Head of the Charles in Boston with the women's 8 from the St. Catharines Rowing Club. The races features the top athletes and boats the sport has to offer, she said, and is "the biggest, most prestigious race in the fall. It's known around the world."
"They only send the best, so when you go there it's an accomplishment just to compete," she said of the Head of the Charles. Only a few boats are good enough to qualify, and the regatta draws "best of the best at their clubs."
Dreher started rowing three years ago with the West Side Rowing Club.
"I'm pretty uncoordinated, and I didn't find a sport that I really enjoyed," Dreher said, laughing. "So I decided to try rowing, and I really love it,"
More than physically demanding, Dreher said rowing is mentally demanding as well, an element of her sport she enjoys.
"It's a lot of focus and concentration. You need to be really determined and ready to practice every day for three hours," she said.
The intense effort over approximately a seven-minute race makes it incomparable to other team sports, she said.
"You've got 2,000 meters to prove how fast you are, and that's it," Dreher said.
"It's probably the best feeling I've ever had," she said.
The St. Catharines boat is performing well after coming together in recent weeks. Dreher's boat won its division in Head of the Welland, beating both the West Side Rowing Club and Nardin, the other women's junior 8 boat that also will be attending the Head of the Charles race. Dreher called the victory "a welcome surprise, because we'd only been practicing together at that point for only a week. So that was really exciting."
Dreher's trip to the Charles River will be the highlight of what has otherwise been an arduous year in the sport. She took a leave from the West Side Rowing Club, where she started as a 13-year-old, because the club didn't have a bid in the Head of the Charles.
Knowing the St. Catherines Rowing Club had a bid for its women's 8, she decided to go to St. Catharines and try out, with no guarantees. She had to rate as one of the top 8 rowers out of 45 girls.
"It's very important to me. I love rowing, and my mom knows that, and she' very supportive of me and my decision to row at St. Catharines," Dreher said.
"It wasn't easy going to St. Catharines, so it makes it all the more worth it now that I actually made the boat and we're going to the Head of the Charles," Dreher said.
As the only American in the boat, Dreher faces three hours a day of cross-border traveling and rowing to make her dream a reality. For that, Dreher, who doesn't have a driver's license, relies on her mother, Ashli, who rowed collegiately at Canisius. Oftentimes, Ashli drives straight from work 20 minutes to the Island to pick up her daughter, then drives 45 minutes to St. Catharines, drops her off at the boat house and then returns to pick up her other daughter at Sidway. Heavyn's grandmother and mother make all her races, too.
"It really is my whole family's effort," said Heavyn.
"And now rowing in this boat at St. Catharines, it just makes all the hard work this past year all the more worth it," she said.
Dreher faced a serious setback last August when she fainted during a cross-training workout. The episode was more than just a fainting spell. It wasn't until last October that she learned she suffered from neurocardiogenic syncope, a temporary loss of consciousness associated with a drop in arterial blood pressure.
"It was nervous for me, and I was worried maybe I'm going to have to limit myself in rowing, and that was really scary," Dreher said of dealing with her condition. Over time, medicine and exercise has helped her manage both inside and outside the boat.
"Now I'm a lot better. I took the time this past year to really work on my cardio so that I'm better, and my endurance has improved," she said.
Dreher has turned a medical setback into a positive when she competes.
"I don't think I'm at a disadvantage, I think I have an advantage, because I did work through this problem, and it's given me not an edge, but an elevated mental state, I'd say. I know what it's like to have to push past that, and pushing past that pain," Dreher said. "What I go through when I have this condition, it's made me a stronger person, and I know I can do this. Every time I start a race, like today, I think, 'I can do this because I've worked through so many other things that were a lot harder than this is going to be.' "