Pushing through the pain barrier is a badge of honor for most athletes, especially endurance competitors like runners, swimmers — and rowers.
Standout rower Meghan Gutknecht is no different, and she said her ability to ignore pain was one of the main reasons she was able to win the gold medal in the women’s U19 singles division at the 132nd Royal Canadian Henley Regatta earlier this month in St. Catherine’s, Ontario.
Gutknecht, who will begin her senior year at Guilderland High School in a few weeks, is a member of the Albany Rowing Center, and her winning time of 8:01.421 was just .5 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor. The prestigious Royal Canadian Henley Regatta is noted for awarding only gold medals in each division.
“I thought I had a chance to win with my last 15 strokes. That’s when I started to pull away,” said Gutknecht. “I was able to execute the game plan just the way I wanted to. It all set in as soon as I crossed the finish line.”
“It was not a totally surprising outcome,” said Albany Rowing Center head coach Mike MacMinn. “But I will say it met our highest expectations for her. She was right on the mark. The way we discussed the race, she followed the plan to the letter, and everything went the way we envisioned. I thought she had an excellent chance to win with 500 meters left, and we all had our fingers crossed. It was very clear to me that with 500 meters left, Meghan was on a mission.”
Gutknecht was definitely on a mission, one that was sparked by a recent close call at the U.S. Rowing Junior Nationals, where she just missed making the national team.
“I kind of had a rough summer when I didn’t make the national team. This made me feel like I actually accomplished something,” Gutknecht said.
“She was racing really well in Canada,” added MacMinn. “She took a look at her competition every 10 strokes, and then she would refocus. Then she would take another 10 strokes and look over again. She knew where she was at.”
Gutknecht said that even though her incessant physical training allowed her to remain strong, her mind was equally responsible for the victory.
“There are definitely mental factors to being a good rower,” she said. “You really need to have a good pain tolerance. Being able to convince yourself that you can finish a race when there is a lot of a pain involved is key.”
Gutknecht said she started out as a soccer player, but eventually switched to rowing.
“I liked soccer, but I found out that I really wanted to win something individually,” she said. “I also discovered that the individual aspect of rowing definitely helps out with the team aspect. You are part of a team in rowing, and sometimes you are rowing with other girls. But ultimately, in the singles boat, you are all by yourself.”
During the summer, Gutknecht spends virtually all of her free time rowing.
“Usually, it’s my priority,” she admitted. “During the school year, sometimes I would have morning practice before school. Then I would go to class. Then I would leave for another practice. By the time I got home, it’s 7 p.m., and it would be dinner time.
“We practice more in the summer. We practice twice a day, except for Sundays. I like the extra practice in the summer, because there are no interruptions.”
An excellent student, Gutknecht said she does better when she has to squeeze a lot of different things into her busy schedule.
“I take some advanced classes in math and science, and I skipped a grade in grammar school,” she said. “I’ve also taken calculus, and now I’m taking some art classes. I really have to have a set schedule that I can work around. When I’m crunched for time, I seem to do better.”
Gutknecht plans on rowing in college. So far, she’s taken three official visits, to the University of Washington in Seattle, Michigan and Ohio State.
“All the schools I’m looking at have very big rowing programs, plus great academics,” she said.
“My ultimate goal is to train up and try to make the Junior National Team next summer. I want to give it another shot, and I will train very hard to do just that.”
Her coach has no doubt that Gutknecht will be successful at the next level.
“I think she is definitely going to be a Division I athlete, and she will make the Junior National Team next summer,” MacMinn said. “Winning the Canadian Henley gold medal was definitely redemption for her.”
Gutknecht also joined Ashley Cleary, Rebecca Conway and Elana DeSantis in finishing third in the U19 Quad, while the U17 women’s Coxed Four (Emily Ashton, Lizzie Brown, Josie Catalano, Meghan Smith and Coxswain Ana Lewandusky) finished sixth out of 28 entries.
“I’m extremely proud of how our team performed at this highly competitive regatta,” said MacMinn. “It’s such a valuable experience for our kids every summer, and really helps us to set the tone for the upcoming year. I’m excited to see how much progress we can make before our championship race season next spring.”