Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 23, 2012

Lessons from rowing

A Palo Alto native lives out her love for crew as coach and mentor

by Haiy Le

When people hear the word "crew," they typically think of prep schools or a sport on the East Coast.

But local rowing club NorCal Crew has been making a splash on the California front. At the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston on Oct. 21, the Men's Youth Fours placed fourth out of 85.

The club's new executive director, Palo Alto resident Allison Frykman, took over in May and has big plans for the organization, a nonprofit dedicated to developing youth through the sport of rowing.

Membership currently stands at 100 athletes and Frykman hopes to expand it to 160 within three years. Thirty high schools are represented in the club, with about one-third of the students drawn from Palo Alto.

"A lot of people initially start with the idea that it will help them get into college," she said. "Rowing is historically a very high GPA sport. By and large, the best rowing programs are the Ivy League schools. Pick a university, and we have alumni there."

But before parents and ambitious high school students start signing up, Frykman warns about the weekly, 20-hour commitment it requires: "We get a lot of kids thinking they are there for résumé padding, but they find out very quickly, there is a lot of hard work and time involved. So if you don't love it, you're not going to be able to stick with it."

For Frykman, 28, this love has endured for 12 years, beginning in her junior year of Palo Alto High School, when she started rowing competitively, and spanning to her current role as NorCal Crew executive director.

Born in Santa Rosa, she moved to Palo Alto when she was 3 months old. She went to school at Ohlone Elementary, Castilleja, Paly and Stanford, where she received her bachelor's degree in physics and master's degree in education.

"I've never felt like I needed to go anywhere else," she said.

Frykman was recruited into rowing by a friend of her father's, Mike Still, who in 2000 founded what was then named Silicon Valley Crew.

She said she enjoyed the opportunities crew presented, allowing her to form friendships outside of high school and offering her relief from the stresses of school.

"I hated my life. I just studied and worked. It was go, go, go, go, go."

In high school, Frykman had a heavy academic course load, taking five advanced-placement classes her senior year. She was also involved in soccer, cross-country, water polo and track but gravitated towards crew.

"Crew fit with my personality a lot better," she said. "I love rowing because it's the ultimate team sport. I just really like that everybody's in the same boat doing the same thing at the same time. There are no superstars in rowing."

Frykman names Still as an important mentor in rowing and through high school.

"He taught me a lot about life, hard work, teamwork and humility that I wouldn't have learned through my immediate family or my high school experience," she said. "The lessons you can learn from being a rower apply to so many aspects in life."

She hopes to impart similar lessons to her students. According to some of them, she already has.

After obtaining her master's degree in education, Frykman taught physics at Gunn High School. One of her students was Arik Oganesian, now a sophomore at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"She was one of the best teachers I've ever had," Oganesian said. "When some teachers explain concepts, they explain it like a textbook. But when she explained it, she taught us on a personal level and would change her approach from one person to another."

In 2009, during his junior year at Gunn, Oganesian and his friend were exploring crew, and Frykman encouraged them to check out NorCal Crew. He joined soon after and continues to row competitively on the crew team at UCSB.

"Crew made me tougher mentally and has helped me in school. It helps me stay focused for a longer period of time," Oganesian said.

He said Frykman's coaching and mentoring honed his personal and athletic skills.

"She had a good eye for our technique and the mistakes we were making. ... You can't ask for more as a beginner rower to get that constant feedback."

After spending four years teaching at Gunn, Frykman decided she wanted to devote herself full-time to NorCal Crew.

"I particularly enjoy the high school level as a coach because I get to see the kids develop over the four years of high school to grow into young men and women," she said. "It's at an age where they are forming so much of their personality, so I get to see their personality shape over those four years with rowing helping develop who they become."

Frykman became executive director of NorCal Crew after Still, her coach and mentor of 12 years, stepped down. The nonprofit is overseen by a board of directors that's chaired by Mark Prioleau.

"Allison has come in with lots of vision, tons of energy and a very good work ethic," Prioleau said. "In the Bay Area, there are several very strong (crew) programs in Marin County, Oakland and Los Gatos. What we would like to see happen with NorCal is to build a program in the mid-peninsula that is on par with the other clubs in the Bay Area, which are on par with the best in the country."

Prioleau became involved with NorCal Crew through his son's participation. Luke Prioleau began rowing during his sophomore year at Palo Alto High School.

Prioleau saw a transformation in his son from his crew practice.

"I was worried that my son, who loves to stay in bed as long as possible, was never going to be able to make the 5 o'clock morning workouts. But he did it with absolutely no help from us (his parents)."

Luke is now a freshman at Georgetown University, rowing on the lightweight crew. His father stayed with NorCal Crew and signed on as a board member to help expand the program.

"I think it's a great sport for kids that teaches a good sense of discipline and puts the onus on them to go and make this commitment to work hard," he said. "It's a very demanding sport, and kids who put in the work can really see the improvement."

James Hindery, a junior at Paly, joined in November 2011.

"The sport showed me that you have to put in a lot of work. Rowing is very painful, but it's all made worth it with moments like when you cross the finish line with your boat," he said. "You and your teammates have been suffering through it together, but you know that you had the best race that you could give."

Hindery's boat medaled in the Youth Fours at the Head of the Charles, earning them guaranteed entry in next year's regatta. He said he is excited to see where NorCal Crew goes next.

"Allison is definitely one of the greatest coach I've ever had for any sport. I'm hearing that she has been scaring some of the other teams in California with turning us into a very competitive program not only here in California but nationally," he said.

Not only is Hindery a competitive rower, but he brings that mental focus to the classroom. With 20 hours of practice and commuting per week, Hindery approaches the rest of his time with a similar mindset: "When you get home, you don't have much time to do homework so you really have to focus up and make sure you're not procrastinating and get all your studying done if you want to maintain a competitive GPA."

For a person who said she hated her life during high school, Frykman is using crew to transform her students' resume-padding high school experience into one that instills lessons of hard work, discipline and commitment.

"You can get so far with muscling your way through crew and physically having the body for it, but it does require a huge level of mental focus," Frykman explained. "I see a lot of kids who come into rowing and they learn about mental focus. They see that hard work pays off in rowing, and then they can apply that to school later."

Editoral Intern Haiy Le can be emailed at hle@paweekly.com.

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