By Dan Harrison
From "on your mark, get set, go!" to "all hands on deck," UMass has witnessed the athletic reincarnation of Katie von Zweck.
After four years and 12 undefeated seasons under Beverly High track coach Dave Jellerson, von Zweck has moved on to bigger — and wetter — things by walking on to the UMass rowing team last fall and working her way up to the varsity eight boat by the spring.
Having a freshman such as von Zweck walk-on and make his varsity eight boat is a bit unusual for Minutewomen coach Jim Dietz. But the 19-year-old from Beverly was just too impressive to ignore, even on her very first day.
When von Zweck stepped up to the ergometer (a universally used rowing machine) at practice for the first time, she registered a little over seven-and-a-half minutes, something that really caught Dietz' eye.
"The ergometer is used by coaches all over the world, so you can compare your times within the school, nationally or even internationally," said Dietz, who just finished his 16th season coaching at UMass.
"You can technically teach people how to row so they can't hurt the boat while getting the most out of their energy, but you also look for that person with an engine. These boats don't move on anything but people power, and (von Zweck) demonstrated that she's got it."
If anyone can recognize a superb rowing talent, it's Dietz. He not only built the UMass rowing program, but he has coached them to 13 Atlantic Team Championships and has been named Atlantic Conference Coach of the Year seven times. Dietz was recognized internationally in March when he was inducted into the National Rowing Hall of Fame.
"Jim is very enthusiastic — and it's contagious. He has such high expectations that you can't help but want to reach them," said Von zweck.
"When he pulled me up (to varsity) he had all the confidence in me, so it made me more excited. It's why I think he's the best coach in the country; he really knows what he's looking for and when we race, he's right there on the launch ready to go."
Transition from track
For von Zweck — or 'VZ', as her coach and teammates call her — the transition to rowing has been an interesting one.
"As a runner I was in good cardio shape coming in, but the (rowing) technique is a whole other world," explained VonZweck, who went undefeated in the high jump her senior year with the Panthers. "I didn't lift in high school, so this was a whole new ballgame. Track is all legs, really, so my upper body I had never really focused on. When she saw me over winter break, my mom (Maureen) said my arms and shoulders had put on a lot of muscle."
After spending the fall learning under novice coach Alex Binkowski, von Zweck came back in the spring and was moved up to the Varsity eight boat. It was her former track skills that made the transition so smooth.
"She's an athlete and right off the bat she had great body control, motor skills and an aerobic base already built in," said Dietz. "It can be a natural transition to move into our sport (from track). VZ understands movement and feel, and she's very relaxed. They say the best athletes are the ones that are laid back and relaxed — and that's her."
Recalling her unique abilities in high school, Jellerson is anything but surprised with how well his former captain has done at UMass.
"I know rowing takes a great deal of cardiovascular work. It's one of the most intense cardio workouts you can do," said Jellerson. "Katie is a tall girl and has great length, so she can put all that force and drive into powering the oars.
"Plus, she has a will that just won't quit. (Rowing) is exhausting and you need that push to the finish. She has that drive."
For von Zweck, it was the mentality she developed in her days running track that has served her best now that she's on the water.
"When conditions aren't good in a race, you have to think technique. If you get tired and lose technique, then everything hits the fan," said von Zweck. "In rowing, like in running, you have to compete with yourself. Do you have the mindset to go faster, harder and longer?
"In a track race you can put it all out there, put all your power into every step without hesitation. But in a boat, every movement is precise and everything you do has to be in synch with the boat; otherwise, you're just working against everyone."
von Zweck's first varsity race came in early spring at the beginning of the spring this past season when the Minutewomen traveled to Canton, N.J. to compete in the Knecht Cup when she was called up to the varsity eight boat.
"It was an adrenaline rush, definitely," von Zweck said of her first race. "You row up to the starting line and start warming up and you're ready. Then like a heart attack, you're off.
"I remember it went quick, but it was a lot of fun. We were so fluid. Once it all comes together it's not even work; everyone is so in synch doing everything they're supposed to do. Your mind is in a whole different place."
With a strong showing in the US Rowing Collegiate Championships, von Zweck's eight boat took home third place while UMass had first place finishes in the lightweight eight and the lightweight double.
Now as Dietz and the Minutewomen regroup for next year, von Zweck looks like she could be one of their biggest assets.
"I can see her next year improving her erg by 20 seconds. We're going to be training her in singles more; we tried to do it the last two weeks here and she took to it like a duck to water. Singles is the epitome of balance and feel, and that is Katie.
"Beyond that, our sport is an Olympic sport. We try to bring them to the highest level — and VZ's potential is national Olympic potential."
For now, von Zweck just hopes she can return next year to make the team better while possibly taking one of the Minutewomen's most coveted rowing spot: in a singles boat in the Head of The Charles Regatta in October.
"I want to make sure I do everything in my power to make my team as good as we can be," said VonZweck. "And the Head of the Charles next fall wouldn't be a bad thing."