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Wickstrom helps Michigan win rowing title

Photo submitted Houghton native Stella Wickstrom (right), and her teammates from Michigan’s 2V8 boat, coxswain Rumaysa Siddiqi, Zoe Simmons, Eliza Harris, Cameron Beattie, Grace Wininger, Annabelle Minneman, Ava Conklin and Georgia Meyer pose after winning their race at the Big Ten Championships on Sunday, May 31, at Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The Wolverines won the Big Ten Championships.

ANN ARBOR — At Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo, Wisconsin, on a Sunday morning at the end of May, a former Houghton Gremlins girls basketball player went through her warm-up routine, prepared herself mentally for the task at hand, gathered with her teammates from the University of Michigan, and helped get her boat into the water. Minutes later, she and her teammates were finishing first in their race.

That was the first step for the Wolverines towards a Big Ten title in rowing.

Stella Wickstrom helped the Wolverines win the Second Novice Eight by almost three seconds (6:46.798) over Iowa (6:49.510).

For Wickstrom, being even a small part of a much larger team victory – there are seven boats total for each school at the Big Ten Championships was a truly special moment.

“It really feels amazing,” she said. “It’s something that, as a team, Michigan rowing works so hard for the entire season. For it to just play out the way it played out, and how wonderfully it played out, it just really felt like a dream come true. The most amazing thing that I was able to be a part of, for sure.”

So, how does a girl who grew up in the Copper Country playing sports like basketball and volleyball end up competing in college in rowing?

“So basically, when they’re looking for rowers, they’re looking for length, and they’re looking for height, and then girls who have done endurance sports in the past,” Wickstrom said. “So I was on a recruiting website, because I was hoping to play basketball or volleyball.”When schools came to her pitching the possibility of rowing, Wickstrom admits, she did not know what to think at first.

“I was contacted first by Eastern (Michigan), and at first thought it was a total joke,” she said. “My mom was like, ‘Oh, that’s like, a total spam.’ I didn’t know what it was. But, then I started talking to those coaches and realized, oh, wait, I have, like, the perfect ability for this.

“Then, from there, I got noticed by Michigan State, Iowa, and then, ultimately, Michigan.”

Suddenly, Wickstrom had options. She ultimately settled on Michigan, where she felt most at home.

“I just felt like the team culture was the best, and the program with the coaches, my coach was an Olympian. She won gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016,” said Wickstrom. “So, I just felt like I fit in most there with their culture and with their work ethic at Michigan.”

At 6-foot-0, Wickstrom had the arm length and body length to give rowing a chance. However, first she needed to figure out how things work.

“So, I really at first had no idea how a rowing regatta worked, had no clue,” she said. “Of course, being from the U.P., I’ve never watched one, but it kind of really helped that I had participated in track and field all throughout high school. So basically, it’s really, it’s kind of a very stressful thing when you’re in, especially, like, the Big Ten regatta, because if your boat wins, that’s great, that’s amazing. But, it all depends on how all the other boats as well do, as a collective team, to put up points on the board.”

After her boat, known as a 2N8 for Second Novice Eight, there were six other races, including 1N8, 1V8 (First Varsity Eight), 2V8, 1V4 (First Varsity Four), 2V4, and 3V4. Michigan won not just her race, but also the 1N8, the 1V4, the 2V8, and the 1V8, while finishing second in the other two races, giving the Wolverines 189 points, 45 more than Indiana.

She and her teammates were focused on taking care of what they could control, their own boat.

“Since my race was the first race of the day, we needed to step out there for the first race of the day and really show off what our team can do, and really hold the standard high for the rest of the boats for the regatta,” she said. “It’s not just one boat that wins at all, basically. We all need to work our hardest, and show up for each other in the fours and also in the higher eights.”

Wickstrom was posted in the seventh seat of her boat, which meant that she was a key component of her boat, due to the fact that she had one of the longest strokes on the team.

“So, you’re middle four, so your stern pair and your bow pair, your stern pair are going to be the best, logistically, as in their stroke is the best,” she said. “Then your bow pair, they can follow really well, because you’re following eight other people, and you have to time it correctly. But, your base four, where I was, it’s your strongest four rowers (who) are in the base four of your boat. So, the rowers with the biggest push, the longest arms, the biggest length, so the longest stroke, and the biggest push, are going to be your middle four.”

For her, being in the middle four felt just right, especially when her team was involved in tight races where one seat on the boat could make all the difference in which boat’s bow was furthest in front at the end of a race.

“I really enjoyed being there, and just the activity in the boat during a race,” she said. “I really enjoyed being in the middle, because you can hear, you can yell to your people in the back, and tell everyone what’s going on, and you can hear your coxswain yelling for you. You can really just excite the boat, and keep the energy flowing, even when you’re, say, down a couple seats or you’re up a couple seats, and you want to keep pushing. So, it’s a really good. It’s a really fun place to be during a race.”

Both novice boats include rowers who either have very little rowing experience, or none at all. Wickstrom found that, even though she had never rowed before, she could lean on her experience as a leader to help be a part of a special boat.

“I feel like rowing has both individual aspects, and then, of course, a total full-team aspect,” she said. “So, going into it, it was the team, the team, the team, always for the team. “It really helped that I had a background of leadership as our varsity basketball captain my senior year at Houghton. All those other girls were also leaders at their school, so they kind of knew where the team wanted to go, in that sense.”

Prior to the Big Ten Championships, Wickstrom and her teammates in the 2V8 boat went through some struggles, which really helped them solidify as a group.

“We traveled to Sarasota April 19 for the Big Ten Invitational, and we knew, in our hearts, we were going to be racing,” Wickstrom said. “The boats we race at this invitational are going be the boats that we face at Big Ten Championships. So, we need to show up.”The first day, our first race, we lost to Rutgers by, I want to say it was like 0.5 seconds or maybe 0.4. We lost to them, and their whole boat was cheering, and we were all like, that was, I think, the most angry my boat has ever gotten. We wanted that so bad. That was the last thing we wanted to see at Big Tens.”

Her boat knew it needed a comeback, and that was what motivated them to come together.

“So then the next two races, we showed up in our second race on that Friday, and then Saturday, we knew that it was our biggest race was Saturday morning, because it was us, Ohio State, Rutgers again, Iowa, the biggest or the highest ranked Big Ten teams in our novice rankings,” she said. “So, we knew that they were going to show up as well, and we just really wanted to beat Rutgers again. So, once we completed that, and the one at Big Tens, I think we all kind of knew, ‘OK, we’re in a good spot, but we need to keep pushing, because these boats are also going to keep pushing. Now they’re going to try to headhunt us for Big Tens, because they know what we can do, and so we need to also keep improving.”

Improve was exactly what they did. By the time they finished their Big Ten Championships race, Michigan’s 2V8 was almost 12 seconds faster than Rutgers (6:58.500).

Wickstrom admits that she had never been so nervous as she was just prior to that race.

“I’ve had a lot of athletic events in high school, and I’d have to say that was the most nervous I’ve ever been,” she said. “We had a really good practice. We had been having really good practices leading up to that, so I felt pretty confident. I liked the race course, so I was feeling good with that. It was just kind of, once we pushed our boat off the dock, it was lock in and zone in, and that’s all that our boat did.”It was definitely quicker than we thought, and it was a little windy. So, it was kind of hard to get our boat ready to go at the beginning, and locked in, but we made that work.”

Wickstrom had a blast with her teammates this season, but she is also nervous about next year, because a spot is not guaranteed on a varsity boat just because she rowed well on a novice boat. However, she is working on improving herself in every aspect she can as she waits for what comes next, whether that is on a varsity boat, or even as an alternate, if things work in her favor.

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