Rowing up in Bellingham
Story by ALAENA FLETCHER
Corina Chon is all Bellingham. She has a stick and poke tattoo of a sun on her finger and passionate opinions about which lake is best in the summer, and she knows to reassure customers at her job that the straws are compostable. Corina has an infectious, friendly personality and gives off an energy like she’d much rather be outdoors. Which she often is.
Corina just completed her first year on the Western women’s rowing team. Being on the team requires intense dedication, the team practices five days a week from the start of fall quarter until the championships in late May. Corina says she doesn’t mind that the team rises around 4 a.m. to make the drive down I-5 onto a winding road that hugs the lake shore until they reach the boathouse. At 5 a.m. practice starts in the pitch black morning air, often thick with fog. In the fall and winter quarters their entire practice is done in the dark using headlamps and safety lights on the boats, and coaches directing with spotlights on the water.
Head coach John Fuchs says that the main goal is for everyone to keep learning and having fun. “Corina is always willing to learn and wants to do her best. She pours everything she has into rowing,” Fuchs said.
Despite never having rowed on a team in her life until she came to Western, Corina says she loves everything about it, even waking up before dawn.
“I feel so much respect for my other teammates. We all get up at four in the morning and that takes dedication,” Corina said. “Being surrounded by people with the same passion and dedication as you is super inspiring.”
Corina’s parents immigrated from Korea to Pomona, California in the 1980s. After having Corina and her brother they wanted to move north to be closer to Corina’s grandmother who had immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia. Corina was just 3 years old when her family was headed to Blaine, but they stopped in Bellingham along the way and decided to call it home. Corina said her mom was attracted to the community of Bellingham and the bigger city had more opportunities for their family. One of which was outdoor recreation and sports.
Corina played soccer and was on the track team at Sehome High School before breaking her collarbone while mountain biking. Active from a young age, Corina spent many summer hours at Lake Samish swimming and boating, but never tried rowing.
While the 2016–17 row team was winning their eighth national championship, Corina wasn’t even enrolled in Washington. She had received a scholarship to the University of Montana and wanted the challenge of getting out of Bellingham and her comfort zone.
Montana may have the beautiful outdoors Corina desired, but it was missing a key aspect she had grown up with: the ocean. She was landlocked and culture-shocked by the lack of environmental consciousness in Montana that she had been raised with in Bellingham. She said that much to her disappointment, several students she met didn’t know what composting was.
While at the University of Montana, Corina realized she wanted a major focused on environmental sustainability. No major at Montana fit that criteria and she desired to attend a smaller university. She didn’t consider other colleges in Washington, she wanted to be close to the ocean and Western made the most sense.
“Western had a business and sustainability major. It’s like I couldn’t go wrong with that and I had to go home,” Corina said.
With her major decided, Corina set her sights on a new activity. She had friends who had been involved with the Whatcom Rowing Association and longed for team mentality again. She reached out to coach Fuchs before she had even left Montana.
“I just missed that bond. I enjoyed it so much in high school. It’s those people that you can rely on and trust,” Corina said. “After doing [no sports] for a year in Montana I needed more structure in my life. I wanted to try something new. What makes Western’s rowing team special is everyone is a walk-on. Which is kind of impressive because we go from being a team of walk-ons to nationals.”
Corina’s lack of experience didn’t matter; rowing tryouts are open to everyone. Students interested in joining the team must pass a physical as well as a float test. Since rowers don’t wear lifejackets, each person on the team has to tread water in the recreation center’s pool for 10 minutes with just their clothes on. In the last minute they need to put on a life vest in the water. Corina’s growing up around water made this part easy, but her height would make her options on the team limited.
Corina stands at just 5 foot 2. Her small stature prevents her from being a rower, but makes her perfect for the coxswain position. The coxswain is in charge of steering the boat and keeping everyone safe. The coxswain wears a headset to relay information from the coaches on the shore to the rowers on the boat. Corina is often in the boat of four rowers, as opposed to eight. She sits in the front of the boat facing forward while the rowers row backwards, blind to what’s in front of them relying on Corina to steer them straight. Race days are particularly stressful for Corina and the other coxswains. They tell the rowers where to meet, when to warm up and be back and have the race plan memorized.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Corina admits. “But I need pressure in order to succeed. I’m like the coach on the water. Since our coach can’t be out there with us, we as coxswains have to have the plans for everything.”
Rowing may seem like getting the boat from point A to point B as fast as possible, but it’s much more technical than that. Corina and her fellow coxswains carry a GPS that tells them the speed of the boat, the stroke rate and how far they’ve gone in the race. They must use this to know when to tell the rowers to sprint and for how long. Rowers can’t row as hard as they can the whole race or they’d be exhausted before the finish. Instead, they have a cadence tempo for the body of the race and Corina tells them when to push themselves to speed up.
Another essential aspect of the coxswain position is motivating the team to row harder and faster, especially near the end of the race. Senior Hannah Haupt is a rower on the team and spent most of last season in the same boat as Corina. She describes a technique called a “power 10” when the rowers “pull as hard as they can for 10 strokes,” usually strategically placed near the end of a race. This requires a special kind of encouragement and call to spur the team to action. Corina often uses the rest of the team as inspiration, telling the rowers to do it for those on the shore who are watching.
“It’s hard in those last 100 meters of a 2,000 meter race and you feel like you have nothing left. But she can get you that motivation that you do have that next gear. She’s really good at doing that for us,” Hannah said.
Corina recalls one race in which she made a motivational call to the team to row for an injured teammate. They were neck and neck with the other boat and needed to finish first in order to qualify for the finals. She made that call and her boat jumped out in front. The team took first place and went on to the finals where they would place second overall. Corina is hesitant to pat herself on the back for that; she’s almost frustratingly humble. She says she works hard so she can match the great effort her teammates put in.
“It’s all for my team,” Corina shrugs. “The last thing I want to do is let them down; that’s my biggest fear. Having that pressure motivates me to do my best. I just want my team to succeed.”
Corina’s leadership abilities were expected by Kevin Johnson, her teacher at Sehome. Johnson taught Corina for multiple classes including leadership, which Corina admits made the coxswain position more appealing. Johnson remembers her fondly as one of his favorite students. He recounts her phenomenal development as a leader with a magnetic personality and huge heart for the Bellingham community.
“It would not be a surprise to me at all that she’s super successful at Western in whatever she’s doing and it would be even less of a surprise that she would leave the place better than she found it,” Johnson said. “That’s just who she is.”
Corina says she will continue to do rowing for the rest of her time at Western. She has expressed an interest in moving away after graduation, but will not stray too far from the West Coast which she calls the “best coast.” Corina assumes she will return to Bellingham later in life to raise a family as she cherishes her time growing up here. One thing is certain: she will never live more than a few hours away from the ocean again.