STONINGTON — Stonington High senior Leila Robarge has learned a few things during her time with the school's crew team.
Rowing has helped her grow as a person and as an athlete.
Robarge lived in San Francisco before moving to Stonington in eighth grade. She ran cross country there in middle school, but at that point in her life, by her own admission, she wasn't really good at sports.
At the time, her friend Emily Lenihan's brother was on the crew team at Stonington. So Lenihan, Robarge and another friend, Una Schaffer, decided in eighth grade to give crew a try when they entered the high school the next year.
Robarge learned rather quickly that it would be challenging. In the midst of her first 2,000-meter training session that freshman year, things weren't going well.
"I was exhausted. We were halfway through and I couldn't finish," she said. "I thought, 'We have to do this again. We're only halfway.' I couldn't breathe. My coach said to me that feeling that you've reached your limit, that is not your limit. It's some kind of response that tells you that you have reached your limit. There is more and you have to push past that and find it. It took me awhile to get that.
"There is always more you can accomplish if you push past it. I never learned to push myself until I was on this team."
Robarge has learned things other than the ability to respond to challenges.
"Crew has helped me with my confidence," she said. "I didn't have a lot of body positivity. I never really felt great about myself. I'm not the most athletic person, and I saw the other girls were so strong and I wanted to look like that. But I've learned you don't even have to worry about the way you look. It's about what you can do. It's about what you can accomplish."
Robarge would have been a captain on this year's team before the coronavirus pandemic ended the season early.
She's come a long way — she knew nothing about the sport when she decided to give it a try. She had never even seen a race.
"I had no idea what it was. When I went to practice I thought they were supposed to give me two oars and I wondered why they didn't," Robarge said.
But Robarge had a good feeling about things in the first training session on an ergometer, which is a rowing machine.
"When we first started [practice], it was across the street from the high school and they had rowing machines. I was really nervous, but as soon as I started rowing it felt right," she said.
But there are so many other things that have made the sport special for Robarge.
"We spend a lot of hours together and there is that connection," she said. "You get really, really close to everyone. When you join the crew team, it's like an automatic family."
Race days are Robarge's favorite.
"We make posters to motivate each other. Before the race we do warmups together," she said. "We rig the boat together and carry it down to the water. The boat does not separate; we are always together."
Rogarge said it was difficult to learn the season was canceled. But even without practices and races, Robarge said the team has remained close.
"We've kept in touch. We've done lots of activities," she said. "The team is closer than it has ever been. Hopefully, we can do some rowing this summer."
Robarge added that she misses the sights and sounds of the sport.
"I missing seeing my teammates faces and just being there. There is something about rowing when the oars click in the oar locks, I just love that sound," she said.
Robarge is headed to Boston University in the fall where she will major in Chinese and be in pre-med. She may try to walk onto the lightweight crew team. In college, teams are organized by the weight of the rowers.
What advice would she give to an incoming freshman at Stonington?
"Make sure you make good friends your first year," she said. "Those people will stay with you. And do crew."