GVSU alumna training to row in 2016 Olympics

McIlduff joined Laker rowing club as a novice in 2005

By A.A. Knorr | 2/17/16 8:29pm

GVL / Courtesy - Rowing Celebration Sarah McIlduff
by Rowing Celebration and Rowing Celebration / The Lanthorn

Four years after a fourth-place finish in the 2012 London Olympics, Sarah McIlduff (née Zelenka) is back at it. McIlduff, a rower and Grand Valley State alumna, is currently training in New Zealand with hopes to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

After the London Olympics, McIlduff and her rowing partner, Sara Lombardi (née Hendershot), split ways. McIlduff took a coaching job at the University of Louisville, while Lombardi opted to continue training.

Lombardi was training with a different rower, but the partnership didn’t end up working out. She gave McIlduff a call.

“I had secretly been hoping I would have another opportunity to get back into training full-time -- especially when I would catch up with (Lombardi) about how her training was going. So when she called and we talked it out, I was pretty excited about the opportunity.”

The two linked back up in June 2015 and headed to Boston, where they fell under the tutelage of Harvard rowing coach Charlie Butt. McIlduff and Lombardi trained until the snow fell, then hit Florida and California to train.

Then, they decided to head to New Zealand.

More warm weather, the promise of long, pristine lakes and the opportunity to practice with the New Zealand national rowing team attracted McIlduff and Lombardi. They arrived on Jan. 4 and will stay until Feb. 22.

“Since we have been here we have improved our technique tremendously, got in some really good side-by-side work with the New Zealand women’s national rowing team, and have been able to compete in two races," McIlduff said. "We have grown our international racing experience and have improved at a very high rate.”

After the pair returns to the U.S., it will set its sights on the National Selection Regatta from Mar. 21-24 in San Diego. The winning pair in the NSR has the opportunity to go to the 2016 World Rowing Cup II in Lucerne, Switzerland. A placement in the top 50 percent of the field at the World Rowing Cup would allow McIlduff and Lombardi to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics for the U.S.

McIlduff, who graduated from GVSU in 2009, picked up rowing as a freshman in 2005 under head coach John Bancheri for the GVSU rowing club. Many Lakers who pick up rowing at GVSU are first-timers. McIlduff was no different.

“GVSU rowing was such a wonderful experience,” she said. “It’s where I learned to row and the team was my family. I made so many great friendships and relationships through my experience that I will always treasure.

“It was also really fun to be a part of a club team, but be faster than a lot of varsity teams.”

When McIlduff came to the rowing club as a freshman, Bancheri noted her physique and potential and moved her up to the varsity level almost immediately.

"I met with her like six weeks into the fall season and we sat down to chat and I said, 'Sarah, you have the physical talent and determination that if you put your mind to this, you're capable of rowing at the Olympic-level someday.'

"I was thinking maybe by 2016, not 2012."

Though McIlduff's time in scenic New Zealand is nearing its end, the true challenges await, namely the NSR and, if all goes well, the World Rowing Cup.

"We are racing to win," she said. "It is definitely a huge challenge, as the USA squad is one of the top rowing teams in the world, so it's going to be tough," she said. "We are excited for the challenge, though.

"So far the journey has been unbelievable. I'm looking forward to March."

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