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Red, White & Blue Boat: Norwich Native Rows for U.S. U-23 Team

Norwich resident Ryan Kelliher, front, recently competed for the Under-23 national rowing team in the men's pair boat at the World Rowing Championships in Austria. Kelliher is a Hanover High graduate now entering his junior year at Colgate University.  Photo courtesy Colgate University.

Norwich resident Ryan Kelliher, front, recently competed for the Under-23 national rowing team in the men's pair boat at the World Rowing Championships in Austria. Kelliher is a Hanover High graduate now entering his junior year at Colgate University. Photo courtesy Colgate University.

Last year, Ryan Kelliher’s younger sister, Kristen, became the youngest female climber to reach the highest summit in all 50 United States. His own aspirations hover literally at sea level, yet Ryan is aiming just as high as a rower.

Kelliher, 21, recently competed for the U.S. national under-23 team at the World Rowing U-23 Championships in Austria.

A 2010 Hanover High graduate and rising junior at Colgate University, Kelliher has continued his rowing career with the Raiders after helping Hanover’s first varsity eight boat qualify for the grand final at the New England Interscholastic Rowing Association championships when he was a senior.

Partnered with Nate Smith, a recent high school graduate bound for the rowing team at the University of California, Kelliher’s boat raced a total of three heats in the men’s pair boat at the U-23 Worlds, held July 25-28 on the Danube River in the north-central Austrian city of Linz.

Averaging about seven minutes per heat, Kelliher and Smith finished dead last — 17th of 17 men’s pair boats. While perhaps disappointing, the ranking didn’t surprise Kelliher given the limited amount of training time he and Smith had compared with their international counterparts.

While many European nations employ clubs that train year-round and often with the same partners, Kelliher and Smith weren’t matched up until late June, when they qualified while paired together at the U-23 trials in New Jersey. That came on the heels of a long season with Colgate, where Kelliher sat in the stroke position for the Raiders.

“We had less than a month of practice, and then we’re up against a lot of countries who have been working on their lineups for months and months,” Kelliher said in a phone interview from Indiana, where he was visiting his girlfriend. “I was busy all the way into June (with Colgate) rowing stroke in an eight boat and then moving to pairs ... It was kind of a big adjustment.”

Kelliher’s coach with the Hanover boys team, Peter Kermond, remembers well the disparities facing U.S. rowers competing overseas, especially for the first time. He noticed some of the training differences while rowing in Great Britain’s Royal Henry Regatta with his University of Pennsylvania team in 1980, and later as a member of the U.S. lightweight team.

“The fact that (Kelliher’s) boat placed last doesn’t make any difference. It’s a wonderful experience for him just to compete over there,” Kermond said. “It’s all about the clubs in Europe because they just don’t have the (collegiate) infrastructure like the U.S. does.

“Here, it’s a long college season for these kids and then they end up with a different group in the summer. You train with this new group for a couple weeks and, if you’re good enough, you go to Europe to face all of these really experienced boats. Sometimes you get clobbered, but it can be a great stepping stone. In rowing, 10 seconds can be the difference between first place and last place.”

Kelliher, of Norwich, was convinced by his neighbor, Hanover High boys novice boat coach Blair Brooks, to go out for the Marauders’ popular rowing program when he was a freshman. He rowed for Brooks during his first season before making varsity his final three years of high school.

Rowing in the six seat as a senior, Kelliher helped Hanover’s first varsity eight reach the grand finals (top six) at the NEIRA meet for the first time in program history. Held at Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Mass., the season-ending NEIRA meet features the region’s top high school programs, public and private.

“That was a really big deal for me and for the team,” Kelliher said. “Not a lot of public schools make the grand final.”

Joining the rowers at Colgate actually meant adjusting to a much smaller program than Hanover’s, at least in terms of numbers. While HHS boasted about 140 total athletes during his senior year, there are about 40 men and women who suit up for the Raiders.

“It’s much more intense in college. The coaching is more intense and there are (fewer athletes) so you get more (individual attention),” Kelliher said. “We practice eight times a week and it’s really a year-round sport. When we’re not in the water, it’s because it’s the winter and then we’re inside weight training or on the (ergometer rowing machines).”

Kelliher’s goals for the coming year include a better showing for the Raiders at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia, the nation’s largest collegiate rowing event where they placed ninth in May. Colgate went on to a 10th-place showing at the IRA National Championship in California to wrap up the season. Kelliher also hopes to be back at U-23s next summer, perhaps in a different capacity.

As for his sister’s accomplishment last year, Kelliher insists there is no sibling rivalry in comparing exploits. Kristen Kelliher ascended Mount McKinley in June 2012 to become the youngest female ever (18 years, one month, 15 days) to summit the highest peak in all 50 states.

Ryan’s ambitions are more down to earth, so to speak.

“I think what she did is a lot more impressive,” he said. “There’s no rivalry, but I definitely want to take rowing as far as I can.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.