It’s 7:30 in the morning — on a Saturday, mind you — and Quinlyn Spellmeyer is already exhausted. She drops her oars and tries to regain the feeling in her hands. Her thighs scream as she climbs out of a wayworn, eight-person scull, 10,000 hard-earned meters of the Potomac River in her wake.
Spellmeyer is a rising senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, but given her summer training regimen, you wouldn’t be crazy to mistake her for an Olympic rower enduring a masochistic lifestyle on the road to Rio. Sunday aside, the spunky, 17-year-old redhead rises at 4:30 a.m. for her daily oatmeal and yogurt, churns through morning and afternoon practices with two different teams, volunteers with a summer rowing camp and hits the pillow by 9 p.m.
Spellmeyer estimates she rows about 80 miles per week in practice. Three of those days include land sessions on the dreaded ergometer, on which she grinds out at least eight kilometers per session, sometimes motoring at a 5K-race pace.
There are times — when the miles tick slowly by, when the heat saps her lungs, when the water dissolves into an endless desert expanse — when Spellmeyer wonders why she keeps climbing back into the boat.
“But when you have that practice where everything just goes really well and the boat is moving incredibly fast and it’s really smooth and you’re with all your friends who you spend all this time with,” Spellmeyer said, “you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m really glad I do this.’”
This past spring, Spellmeyer guided Bethesda-Chevy Chase’s varsity four and eight boats to Maryland state titles as a junior captain. The Barons’ varsity eight captured another title at the Washington Metropolitan Interscholastic Rowing Association championships. Last month Spellmeyer’s four boat won gold for Thompson Boat Center at Club Nationals on the Ohio River. Against 60-odd teams, Spellmeyer and Co. took first in their time trial at that event by a whopping 10 seconds.
It’s hard to believe Spellmeyer had scarcely heard of the sport three years ago.
Spellmeyer spent the first 12 years of her life in Wisconsin, a lacrosse player alongside her twin brothers, Gavin and Brennan. The triplets remain so competitive that their parents refuse to reveal which one is oldest.
“I like to think I’m the oldest because I’m the tallest and I feel like I’m the most mature,” said Quinlyn, who stands about 5 feet 10 inches. “But that could also be just because I’m a girl. I don’t know.”
While her brothers continued to pursue lacrosse, Spellmeyer struck out on her own path when she saw rowing posters adorning the hallways at B-CC their freshman year. Intrigued, she attended the school’s three-week novice program in the fall, at first flailing alongside 15 other newbies in the beginner’s barge — the training wheels of rowing — in which two boats are tied together with wooden planks for stability.
Spellmeyer, one of five B-CC rowers competing over the summer, suddenly found herself immersed in the sport year-round. Her learning curve was especially dramatic between freshman and sophomore year, but improvement continues unabated. Her time drops almost every time she hops into a 2,000-meter erg race.
“She’s kind of just scratching the surface of how fast she can be,” B-CC Coach Mike Farrey said.
For Spellmeyer, rowing’s allure comes from its unavoidable reliance on unit over individual. No superstar can carry an eight boat to victory if her teammates aren’t in sync with her every movement.
“The boat isn’t going to go fast unless all eight people are there pulling together with the same timing, same rhythm,” Spellmeyer said. “You have to trust everyone in your boat to pull for you because if one person gives up, that’s one-eighth of your power gone, and that can be a huge time difference.”
Spellmeyer is looking forward to Monday, when the indomitable U.S. Olympic women’s eight boat begins its quest for a third straight gold medal in Rio. She plans to watch with a big group of friends, many of whom often assume her arms must be getting yoked from all her time on the water. Spellmeyer has to remind them that rowing is 60 percent legs, 30 percent back and 10 percent arms.
Improving technique with her back has been a point of emphasis for the first-team All-Met selection this summer. At times Spellmeyer gets too tense with her shoulders during her rowing motion, transferring power away from her lats (latissimi dorsi) and into her weaker trap (trapezius) muscles. To correct that, she tries to stay relaxed and take as many strokes as she can this summer to refine her motion.
While high school rowing heats up in the springtime, B-CC is already gearing up for the fall season, which begins with the Head of the Potomac regatta on Sept. 25. Spellmeyer and fellow captain Claire Holmvik return to anchor the Barons’ eight boat in the five and six seats, though this year they’ll have more support. Whereas they had only 12 varsity rowers last season, the Barons already have more than 30 girls signed up for the fall.
“As juniors we sort of had to take responsibility for the team and sort of step up to be the seniors,” Spellmeyer said. “It took a little work, but now I’m excited for next year. We have it all down.”