The Chautauqua Lake Rowing Association celebrated its seventh year of incorporation last Friday. Two days earlier, they had other reasons to smile.
For it was early Wednesday morning that CLRA coaches joined Southwestern Central School student Mary Agarwala, her mother, Dr. Kathleen Kane, and SWCS administrators and faculty in the school lobby for a photograph to commemorate an historic day in the history of the organization.
Mary, who will attend the University at Buffalo in the fall, is undecided on a field of study, but one thing is certain: She is the first CLRA member to earn a college athletic scholarship.
Southwestern Central School senior Mary Agarwala, seated center, signs her letter of intent to attend the University at Buffalo on a partial Division I rowing scholarship. She is flanked by her mother, Dr. Kathleen Kane, right; and SWCS assistant principal Kristy Carlson. Standing, from the left, are SWCS principal Mike Cipolla, Chautauqua Lake Rowing Association women’s head coach Nicki Saxman, CLRA high school coach Steve Ordrzwolski and SWCS guidance counselor Tina Maines. Missing is Mary’s father, Dr. V.J. Agarwala.
P-J photo by Scott Kindberg
"When we first started, (the idea of a scholarship athlete) was a dream,'' CLRA high school coach Steve Odryzwolski said. "I didn't know how possible it was. Over the last couple years, it's been getting closer and closer. A couple of kids have rowed (in college), but not for scholarship.
"This was the first time it actually paid off.''
Mary, who will receive a partial ride, was one of two rowers the Bulls added during the National Letter of Intent signing period at the end of November. A two-time Most Valuable Rower for the CLRA, she will compete in the Colonial Athletic Association for Coach Sandy Calfo.
CLRA coach Nicki Saxman is confident that Mary will do well at the next level.
"She is a very hard worker, very dedicated,'' Saxman said. "She's always asking me, 'How can I get better?' She just goes above and beyond.''
Mary said she had email conversation with the UB coaching staff for several months "because that's where I wanted to go anyway.''
Once the coaching staff became aware of Mary's rowing prowess - she has been timed in 7 minutes, 39 seconds for 2,000 meters on an indoor rower called a ergometer - they let her know that she was wanted and needed at UB.
Noted Odrzwolski: "That's faster than half the guys' team."
But the road to Division I was never a foregone conclusion. Although she's been a member of the CLRA for four or five years, she didn't start rowing competitively with the high school team until a couple of years ago.
"It's crazy,'' Mary said. "You get so nervous that you hate the feeling, but at the same time it's a little addicting."
That "need' to row, combined with her desire to get better, has made her a trailblazer, of sorts. While there have been countless area athletes who have taken their talents to the college level over the years, Mary is the first to do so in rowing.
"When we started the club this really was our goal, to give kids the opportunity to get a scholarship,'' Odrzwolski said. "To see Mary do it is pretty amazing. I can't think of a more deserving person."
As Odrzwolski spoke, I couldn't help but think of the day seven years ago when I was invited to the Robert H. Jackson Center to hear about the newly incorporated CLRA. Joseph Gerace of Lakewood was there that day and he spoke of his desire to one day see area athletes have their college tuition paid for through rowing scholarships.
At the time, I was a little skeptical about that ever happening, but now that Mary has accomplished it, Odrzwolski believes others from the CLRA will eventually follow.
"It's a big deal,'' he said, "a very big deal.''
I'm now a believer.