Not your typical Rocky Mountain rower
Harvey Gap isn’t exactly the preferred training ground for future national champion rowers.
Sure, there are plenty of people rowing on the gap’s waters. But most are lumbering around in search of the perfect fishing spot, pushing water in their dory, raft or canoe.
Two summers ago, 1998 Roaring Fork High School graduate Brooke Fornaciari was one of those rowers, lugging her mom and a friend across the Harvey Gap in a rubber raft. The boat moved at a snail’s pace compared to her rowing experience thereafter at the University of California at Davis.
“It was a friend of mine and myself,” Fornaciari’s mom, Sydney Hays, said. “She was talking about going out for crew and we said, `Yeah? Here’s your chance.’
“We were joking with her.”
Fornaciari had just completed her sophomore year at UC Davis at the time of the Gap crossing and, true to her word, Fornaciari went out for the crew team in the fall of her junior year.
She surpassed her expectations by making the team, and, in the process, found her true athletic calling.
Fornaciari went on to claim back-to-back Division II national championships as part of the UC Davis team and was named to the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association All-America team this spring.
Her resume is impressive for any rower, particularly one who grew up next to the roaring Crystal River in Redstone, rather than the glassy waters of a big river like the Charles River in Massachusetts.
“I never thought in a million years I’d be doing a collegiate sport, or doing this sport, or becoming a national champion,” Fornaciari said.
Finding the drive
Fornaciari was the No. 1 singles player for the Rams girls tennis team her senior year at Roaring Fork High School. She didn’t, however, have any college aspirations in tennis, or any other sport, when she headed to UC Davis as a freshman.
She did, unbeknownst to her at the time, have the perfect 5-foot-10 frame to be a rower.
She also has a mentor who has been through the rigors of college athletics in her mother, who was a collegiate Division I tennis player at Arizona State University and a nationally ranked racquetball player.
“I was a tennis pro and gave lessons up to the day she was born,” said Hays. “As soon as the doctor let me, I was back in the weight room training and I’d take her with me.
“She’d just sit in the car seat and she’d watch.”
What Brooke Fornaciari lacked in high school was the intangible will to win exhibited by virtually every elite athlete. Or, more accurately, the specific sport that brought out that aspect in Fornaciari’s personality.
“I think it just took her a while to find her own sport,” Hays said. “I always wanted her to get involved in sports. It can change your life. I never pushed her, but it about killed me that she wasn’t that interested. I’m thrilled she found something. To find a sport and to get to feel what that’s all about doesn’t happen to everybody.”
“Since I started rowing, I’ve found that competitive drive that I don’t think I had in high school,” Fornaciari said. “It’s something about rowing and all the intense people you’re with.”
From training to rowing
Like many athletes, Fornaciari found her inspiration in the Olympics. She came across a crew event while channel surfing and decided to give it a try.
Fornaciari and her mother spent the summer before her junior year training together in preparation for the fall tryouts, and the work paid off.
Although green in terms of competitive rowing, Fornaciari was named to the squad, and quickly became smitten with the sport that just months ago she knew nothing about.
It takes a certain breed of athlete to be a competitive rower. Without a deep love of the sport, rowers won’t last long on a crew team. The day typically begins before 5 a.m. on the water and the rowing session ends in time “to get a shower, if you’re lucky” before classes, according to Fornaciari.
“We get to see the sun come up. There’s no one out there but you, your teammates, your coach and some random fisherman that you try not to hit,” she said.
After a full day of classes – Fornaciari graduated with honors in international relations – the team hits the weight room for a few hours, then returns to the books and prepares to do the same thing the next day.
The uniform sculling of eight rowers, propelling a sleek craft over glassy waters, looks easy enough. But the grace of the sport belies the physical strain.
Fornaciari describes rowing as “the most painful sport.” Only rowers can truly understand the allure, with the payoff seemingly so small and the investment so large.
“You live for that one day when you take the perfect stroke, and the boat soars,” Fornaciari said. “It makes it all worthwhile.
“It can be the most frustrating and exhilarating sport, and it often is at the same time.”
Fornaciari was on the Division II national championship team her first year of competition in 2002. In 2003, sculling in the eight-rower boat, UC Davis entered as the favorite and repeated as national champions.
But the 2,000-meter grand finals wasn’t without drama.
“It was the grand finals, and with about 500 meters to go, something starts happening in the boat,” Fornaciari recalls. “I saw the stroke seat was starting to wobble around and the next thing I knew an oar got caught underneath the boat and we almost came to a complete stop. Somehow, seven of us were able to pull the boat across the line.”
It turns out one of the UC Davis rowers passed out from exhaustion, then was knocked out by the oar of rower behind her when she fell off her seat.
A loss in the eights would have given Western Washington the overall team title, but UC Davis held on to finish with a time of 6 minutes, 51.74 seconds – 5 seconds ahead of Western Washington.
Filling the hole
Two national championships and an All-America honors in two years of competition is an accomplishment, but Fornaciari will now be faced with the task of filling the hole in her life left by the end of her collegiate rowing career.
Fornaciari has no doubt the teamwork and commitment involved in crew will help her in any future job.
She is currently still living in California and isn’t sure where she will end up. Fornaciari does, however, plan to join an adult rowing club, regardless of where she ends up.
But will that be enough to fix her rowing jones?
“We were joking around that we were going to start a self-help club, because it’s not fun to be around a rower (if you’re not one yourself). We’re almost like a cult. It’s crazy how obsessed you become with the sport.”
And the proposed name of the club?
“Where’s My Oar?”
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The Glenwood Springs High School Demon swimmers took first place with a 51-point edge over second place Durango at Colorado Mesa University on Saturday.