Record-breaking suburban teens ready to 'blow up the rowing world'
On the same Tuesday afternoon in March 2018, Mary Jaskoviak and Anya Landrowski showed up to their first St. Charles Rowing Club practice feeling uninspired.
Growing up in athletic families, both had begun competitive swimming at an early age, but realized nearly halfway through high school it wasn't making them happy. So the girls, strangers at the time, decided to try something new.
Mary and Anya weren't sure what to expect walking through the dark, dingy Campana Factory in Batavia that serves as the club's winter practice space. But from the moment they experienced the inviting team atmosphere and sat down on the indoor rowing machines, something clicked.
"I was like, 'this is it,'" Anya says. "It was like a breath of fresh air."
A year later, 17-year-old Anya of Elgin and 16-year-old Mary of Aurora are part of the "varsity eight," the club's top group of competitive rowers. The juniors are getting recruited by some of the country's most prestigious college rowing programs, and they both recently broke world records for their age groups -- practically unheard of for beginners, their coach says.
But in a sport where you're only as good as the weakest person in the boat, they say, it's not about individual accomplishment. It's about team camaraderie. It's about support. It's about pushing one another to be her best.
"It takes a level of trust that sometimes you don't have in other people," Anya says. "Sometimes you won't even get that in other people in a lifetime, and here you're getting it at 16."
Both 5 feet, 10 inches tall, with their blonde hair tied up during practice, Anya and Mary look like they could be sisters. But that's not the only reason they call themselves the "perfect pair."
The girls are pair partners, meaning Mary sits directly in front of Anya in the narrow boat that holds eight rowers and a coxswain. With the slightest dip in Mary's shoulder, Anya knows exactly how to position herself to complement her partner's stroke. If one leans a little too far left, the other will compensate by leaning right.
The same goes for everyone else in the boat, Mary says. They've learned to read their teammates' movements and understand what they're thinking without having to say a word.
"We all know each other better than we know ourselves," Anya says.
Becoming that in-sync doesn't happen overnight. When they started training, Mary and Anya immediately excelled on the individual indoor rowing machines, called ergs. Practicing in a boat on the Fox River is a different story.
"Our first day on the water, we were in the varsity boat," Anya says. "We had never rowed before. I had no clue what was going on."
The more disciplined of the two, Mary quickly noticed she needed to lengthen her strokes and worked to adjust her technique.
For Anya, a self-described "goofball," it took a bit longer to get the hang of it -- though that's not unusual for a novice, her partner reminds her. She spent the summer fighting for her varsity spot and was told several times she was in deep water.
Finally, Mary pulled her aside after practice one day and said, "Anya, you need to get it together." So Anya sharpened her focus.
"She'll keep me more serious, and I try to loosen her up," Anya says. "I feel like that's why I have to train next to her."
The moments leading to a race, everything goes quiet.
Straight-faced rowers keep their gaze forward, avoiding eye contact with their competitors as boats line up at the starting point. No one moves a muscle as the announcer introduces each team. And when the word "attention" is called over the loudspeaker, you can hear a pin drop.
The nerves kick in and the adrenaline flows, Mary says, "but once you take that first stroke, it's like, 'OK, I'm good now.'"
That level of comfort on the water is only possible through the support of teammates, she says. With their muscles aching halfway through the race, the girls are confident in one another to keep pushing. Toward the end, the coxswain calls out the final strokes, each dedicated to a person in the boat, plus one for Coach Chris Meldrum.
"We kind of know that if one person goes down, everybody else does, too," Mary says. "So everybody keeps up the positivity and energy, and we just keep working hard to get through it."
That mindset extends throughout the rowing club, which was founded by Meldrum in 2012 and now has about 36 girls and a half-dozen boys from area high schools. The nonprofit aims to fill a gap in the suburbs, where the sport is rare and the nearest teams are in Chicago and Moline.
"They're elite athletes, and they're a joy to coach," Meldrum says. "You have to be coachable to be successful, and you have to be invested. I'm invested in them, and they're invested in me."
During a regular testing period in December, Mary broke her first world record for the 6,000-meter race -- 24 minutes and 24.3 seconds -- on an erg machine with slides, which allow it to glide back and forth.
Once she did that, she decided to try for the 2,000-meter title and crushed it in 7 minutes, 29.5 seconds with Anya and her teammates cheering her on.
That motivated Anya, 16 at the time, to shoot for a world record of her own. She reached that goal in February when she finished 500 meters in a minute and 35.7 seconds.
The first thing she did afterward? Text Mary.
"I probably wouldn't have even tried to break that record if it wasn't for her breaking two," Anya says "She pushes me to a new level."
If you asked Mary early last year what she wanted to do after high school, she wouldn't have been able to give an honest answer.
A student at Waubonsie Valley High School, she didn't know what colleges she wanted to look at or whether she would pursue swimming. She was unsure about the future and "extremely unhappy" with her situation.
Anya, too, started her sophomore year at Streamwood High School miserable and failing half her classes.
That all changed when they started rowing. Despite practicing six days a week, Anya's grades rebounded, Mary's spirits lifted, and both girls had a much more positive outlook.
"It just changed both of our lives for the better," Mary says. "I think we're really good training partners. We push each other, we push ourselves. Obviously there's going to be hard days, but having everybody here gets us through it."
It's not unusual for the St. Charles Rowing Club's best athletes to move on to Division 1 rowing programs after graduation, Meldrum says. Seniors this year have committed to Drake, Creighton and Gonzaga universities, as well as the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota.
Poised to be among the most-recruited female rowers in the country by this summer, Mary and Anya will have their pick of colleges. They've made contact with several programs and are hoping to commit by this fall.
"There's a lot of opportunity for them," Meldrum says. "They're going to go on and blow up the rowing world."