by Tom Utescher

During the first week of August a number of area rowers traveled north to race at the 129th Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, and two of them returned home with gold medals. Mount St. Joseph alum Samantha Brecht, representing Vesper Boat Club, took the gold in the senior lightweight eight and was runner-up in the Under-23 lightweight eight, and Chestnut Hill Academy grad Don Leatherwood was part of the winning Under-23 eight for another venerable Boathouse Row franchise, the Penn A.C. Rowing Association. Leatherwood’s boat had also captured a gold medal at the U.S. Rowing Club National Championships, held outside of Indianapolis in the middle of July.

Wearing his gold medal from the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, CHA grad Don Leatherwood is pictured in the boathouse of the Penn A.C. Rowing Association, home of generations of rowing champions.

Rising Springside/CHA senior Jen Sager and Germantown Friends School sophomore Ethan Genyk also made the trip to the Canadian Henley, which took place on Martindale Pond in St. Catherine’s, Ontario from July 31 to August 7.

Rowing for Vesper, Sager entered the Under-23 lightweight double, but had better results in the Under-19 double, where she won the eighth of 11th qualifying heats to reach the semifinals. Genyk’s Fairmount Rowing Association boat, an Under-17 quad, was unable to advance out of the initial round of racing, finishing fifth in its heat.

Leatherwood, who graduated from CHA in 2009, will begin his junior year at Yale University next month. During the collegiate season this spring he rowed in the second varsity eight, which was the only boat for the Bulldogs to reach the finals at the Eastern Sprints. A freshman at the University of Pittsburgh last year, Brecht participated in the club program at Pitt, where rowing is not a full-fledged intercollegiate sport. Seeking more of a challenge, she has transferred to the high-powered crew at the University of Wisconsin.

Leatherwood naturally aspires to earn a seat in the top varsity eight at Yale, where the roster includes Tom Dethlefs, a member of the U.S. eight that won the gold medal at the World Rowing Under-23 Championships in Amsterdam last month.

“This was definitely a building summer for me; I needed to work on a lot of different aspects,” said the former CHA standout.

He upgraded his general fitness routine, and just as important, logged a lot of race time on the water.

“I raced 18 2K’s (the standard 2000-meter sprint race), and that’s more than twice the number of 2K’s I would row the entire season at Yale,” he explained. “All that water time helped a lot.”

His crew mates in the eight came from far and near, and included Justin Jones, a Northeastern University sophomore who was part of the U.S. gold medal eight at the 2010 World Rowing Junior Championships. Rowing in such company is not unusual at Penn A.C., home of many past Olympians and those who aspire to join them.

“It’s inspiring just to walk around the boathouse and feel that history, see all those trophies and plaques,” Leatherwood said.

In addition to racing in the eight at the Canadian Henley, he competed in two other boats, including an Under-23 quad that reached the finals, but the chief focus was the eights event. The main competition came from the University of Victoria (from British Columbia), the St. Catherine’s Rowing Club, and the Mendota Rowing Club, which in this instance was an alias for rowers from the University of Wisconsin.

All these crews made their way into the finals on August 5, but there Penn A.C. won convincingly in a time of five minutes, 51.45 seconds, eclipsing runner up Mendota by 7.79 seconds.

Leatherwood hopes his successful summer season will serve as a springboard to help him capture a seat in what should be a strong first varsity eight at Yale. He’s majoring in the history of science and medicine at the Ivy League school. His father is a physician, but while the younger Leatherwood is interested in the medical field he isn’t leaning towards becoming a doctor himself.

Samantha Brecht, the former Mountie, rowed for Penn A.C. last summer, but switched to Vesper this year, feeling it would allow her to do more sculling (two oars per rower as opposed to one in “sweep” rowing) and to spend some time in smaller boats.

“I wanted to refresh my memory a bit and develop my sculling,” she said. “As far as Wisconsin is concerned, I want to be in the best shape I can be in when I get there.”

She pointed out that in the selection process for the crews of its eights, Wisconsin often evaluates the candidates when they’re rowing in two-person sweep boats, or “pairs.” Two of her future Badger teammates were also training at Vesper this summer; one of them, Floridian Hilary Schmidt, will be Brecht’s roommate at Wisconsin.

Brecht, who lives in Flourtown, dealt with some health problems early in the summer, but recovered in time to race at the U.S. Club championships, winning a bronze medal in the Under-23 lightweight double. She also rowed a light double at the Canadian Henley, teaming up with Baldwin School grad Ali Wetzel.

As with Leatherwood at Penn A.C., the eights events generated the most excitement. The University of Victoria boats, staffed with college crewmates used to rowing together, were formidable opponents for the Vesper women. In the Under-23 lightweight eight event, Victoria won the final in 7:02.66, with the Philadelphia boat less than three-and-a-half ticks behind in second.

For the senior light eight races, where there was no age limit, two of Vesper’s under-23’s were replaced by the women who had won the gold medal in the senior lightweight double. Victoria also changed its line-up somewhat, according to Brecht, but Vesper won the final by a little over two-and-a-half seconds, 6:47.70 to 6:50.29.

At Pitt, Brecht had been pursuing courses in English and biological sciences as part of a pre-med curriculum, and she plans to continue in the same vein at Wisconsin.

“Being at Pitt convinced me that I wanted to be at a big university, with the type of facilities that they can offer,” she said. “I’ve been starting to look into some graduate programs in sports medicine, and other areas where I can combine my main interests.”