Sara Kate White’s interest in rowing came about in an unusual way.
An incoming sophomore at Maryville, White said she always spotted this funny-looking building on the water on her way to her family’s lake house in Louisville.
“I would always ask my mom, ‘What’s that building out there?’ It was just so random,” White said. “She was like, ‘Oh, that’s the rowing organization.’”
White decided to check it out, and that’s how she got her start with Blount County’s East Tennessee Rowing Organization two years ago. The organization disbanded in December, sending ETRO rowers seeking a new team with Atomic Rowing in Oak Ridge. It didn’t take long for the two clubs to mesh into one squad with lofty goals.
As members of that organization, White and two other Maryville athletes qualified for US Rowing’s Youth National Championships in Sarasota, Florida, from June 6-9.
White and Oak Ridge senior Veda Seay placed 11th in the women’s lightweight double. Maryville sophomore Reagan Lewis and Maryville junior Matthew Franks were on Atomic Rowing’s first men’s varsity eight to qualify for nationals in 25 years. That boat did not advance past the second round, but Lewis and Franks said getting to compete at that stage was a victory in itself.
“What’s really great about the men’s boat is it’s half Atomic rowers and half ETRO rowers,” said Rachel Seay of Atomic Rowing’s booster club. “So just like Veda and Sara Kate, neither one of them would be there if all the Maryville kids and kids from East Tennessee Rowing had not joined Atomic.”
The Youth National Championships is the premier youth rowing event in the United States with approximately 1,500 athletes vying for national titles in 18 boat classes.
Boats earned their spots in the national championships by finishing in the top three in the finals of the 2019 US Rowing Southeast Regional Championships from May 11-12 in Oak Ridge. There, White and Veda Seay placed first while Lewis and Franks won the bronze medal.
“Two years ago, when I was starting, I didn’t know how I would do,” White said. “Being able to have this opportunity at such a young age is just incredible.”
Lewis said qualifying boats for nationals had been the team’s goal all season. She was the men’s eight boat’s coxswain — the member who sits on the stern and is responsible for steering and coordinating the power and rhythm of the rowers.
“We had our first team meeting and set the expectation that we were going to qualify boats to nationals this year and that we had the speed to do it,” Lewis said. “Every practice since then was just a push knowing that we were working for a bid to get into nationals.”
However, things were initially rocky over the winter for former ETRO rowers, who had just found out their club was closing its doors. Franks said he questioned whether or not his future would continue in the sport.
“In the moment when our team fell through, it really shocked me because none of us knew what was going to happen,” Franks said. “We just didn’t know if we were going to be able to keep rowing anymore, so it was really scary for a bit. Being able to do this with only five months of work was really awesome.”
White and Veda Seay’s chemistry was also instant, and it was never more evident than at nationals.
With a semifinal spot on the line, White and Veda Seay needed to win a race in order to advance. The pair was three seconds behind Princeton National Rowing Association/Mercer coming through the 1,000-meter mark when White and Veda Seay kicked it into another gear, placing first by two seconds.
“We clicked from the start,” White said of her and Veda Seay’s connection. “You just have to pull it out and trust in one another and believe you can do it. We can do anything basically, but it’s just how much do you want to put forth? We just did it together.”