Local rowers power to regional win

Team of Notaro and Mikulski win Midwest title, qualify for US junior nationals

Hinsdale's Matt Notaro and his pairs rowing partner Peter Mikulski of Western Springs were near Cincinnati, Ohio, last month for the Midwest Junior Rowing Championships. The Chicago Rowing Foundation West duo didn't know much about their competition but got a good look as all five finalists moved into position.

"Rowing up to the starting line is always very scary," Mikulski said. "You see all the other boats, and they look back at you."

The plan for the 2,000-meter race was to quickly reach a comfortable pace that they could maintain while keeping some energy in reserve. Pair rowing is a sweep discipline in which each rower has one oar. Notaro mans the starboard (right) side and said he and Mikulski were matched up by their coach due to similar physical traits.

"We're both among the faster kids on our team, and we have similar body types, and that's really important in the pair," Notaro said. "Since it's just two people, two oars, we have to balance each other pretty well to go straight.

"(Mikulski) is the stroke seat, so I'm supposed to follow his every movement," he continued. "I kind of control more of the dynamic part of the race. I look back (at our heading) and control the steering with my foot."

Mikulski said he was compelled to enter the sport by his family after his older sister's rowing experience.

"I have grown to love it, and I think that's come with being good at it," he remarked with a laugh.

Notaro took up rowing in the spring of 2021 looking to emerge from his pandemic hibernation.

"I was bored with COVID. I was just sitting around home," he said. "I had a lot of time, and I had some friends on the team, so I decided to join."

The junior championship race unfolded as they envisioned, with the duo hanging toward the back of the pack to avoid premature burnout.

"We were just starting to feel (some fatigue) at the halfway point, so we had a lot more to give at the end," Notaro related.

The windy conditions had delayed the start time. But the weather was far better than the frigid early-season workouts on the Des Plaines River near Lemont before winter has fully released its grip.

"Those first spring practices are really miserable," Mikulski said.

Their experience confronting all kinds of elements is an asset, Notaro commented.

"Peter and I were really good at rowing in bad weather because we trained in it, and a lot of teams don't even go out in it," he said.

With about 500 meters to go, it was time to kick into a higher gear.

"We were trying to creep up into the pack a little bit," Notaro said. "Once we hit the 250 (meters-to-go mark), I saw that we could make the gap, and we did the charge."

"By 250 meters, I was so tired, I didn't realize we were accelerating," Mikulski said. "I'm very glad we did."

The finish was extremely close, leading to some initial confusion on the outcome. Then word came: they had won by eight-tenths of a second.

"We weren't really sure if we got it because it was such a tight finish," Notaro said.

"I didn't think we won," Mikulski added. "Matt was celebrating and I thought it was premature. But then we got to land and someone told us."

They were the first CRF West team to win a Midwest title. Their coach was ecstatic, as were they, albeit weary. Mikulski was so exhausted he couldn't row back to shore.

"We had to be pulled in (from the finish line). It's like the most painful seven minutes of your life," he said. "I laid in the grass for a while."

But not too long - he had to get to his Lyons Township High School prom that night.

"I recovered on the four-hour drive from Cincinnati," the rising senior said. "I had my tux with me and got dressed in a gas station."

Their season wasn't over yet. The victory qualified the duo for US Rowing Junior Nationals in Sarasota, Fla., June 9-12.

"There was two weeks of practice every day, at 6 a.m., even the weekends," Notaro said.

They arrived at the nationals venue early, describing it as "Rowing City, USA" for its well-designed facilities. They placed 26th in their time trial, racing in a brand new boat provided by the manufacturer. They finished seventh in their division's final.

"All the best rowers from all over America in one place," Mikulski reflected. "It's very intimidating, but it motivated me to work out a little more this summer."

They also appreciated the camaraderie of their sport.

"We always end up having nice conversations with other boats before we race," Notaro said.

Notaro will head to University of Minnesota in the fall, where he plans to continue rowing. Mikulski hopes to add to his CRF West success next season.

"With rowing, it's just so beautiful," he said. "You're out on a river and it's always either sunset or sunrise."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean