by Tom Utescher
One is a powerful 5’10”, developed her skills in one of the largest crew programs in the Philadelphia area, and spent all of her career in an eight-oared sweep-style shell. The other is slight and strains to reach 5’5” on the measuring stick. She spent her high school years sculling at a school with a limited rowing roster, and as a senior this spring she rowed alone in a single.
So what could Lafayette Hill resident Darian DiCianno, from Mount St. Joseph Academy, and Erdenheim native Jen Sager, of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, have in common? Following different routes to their goals, each of the two 2012 graduates has built up an impressive list of accomplishments on both the regional and national level.
Earning a seat in the Mount’s varsity eight as a sophomore, DiCianno has participated in gold medal performances at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta (twice) and the Scholastic Rowing Association of America (SRAA) championships, and a bronze medal effort at the Head of the Charles Regatta.
Her boats finished fifth in the nation at the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships in 2010 and 2011, and she ended her senior season by coming in second at the 2012 Henley Women’s Regatta by a margin of just two feet.
Sager spent much of her SCH career sculling in a quad, making it into the varsity boat as a sophomore, and helping the Lions win the gold medal at Stotesbury the following year. When that quad crew was broken up due to graduation, she went solo in a single for her senior season, winning every race with the exception of the Stotesbury Cup, where she was the silver medalist.
A week later, she claimed the gold medal at the SRAA’s, and in late June she attended the U.S. Rowing Under 23 World Championships at Lake Mercer in New Jersey. There, she came within two-and-a-half seconds (over 2000 meters) of earning a place on the national team, finishing as runner-up to a Princeton University rower three years her senior.
At the Under-23 trials, Sager was officially rowing under the banner of the Vesper Rowing Club on Boathouse Row, where she’s doing her summer training and racing. Her future coach at Trinity College, Wes Ng, happens to be the women’s open-weight coach at Vesper this summer.
“It’s been great, because I’ve gotten a chance to know him, and Vesper has given me a lot of opportunities,” she said. “I think racing with the bigger girls will make me into a better athlete.”
The SCH grad noted that Trinity has been to the NCAA championships for the last 10 years, and added there’s talk a trip to the 2013 Henley Royal Regatta in the offing for the Bantams. Even the college’s mascot, with its associations with a lightweight boxing classification, seems suited for the compact Sager.
Although she’s well within the weight guidelines for rowers in the lightweight categorie, she knew that there were relatively few collegiate lightweight crews, and decided to throw in with an open-weight program at a small school.
Her Springside Chestnut Hill coach, Bruce LaLonde, noted, “Trinity told her they don’t go by size, they go by who’s moving the boat, and I think she’ll be fine in an open-weight setting.”
LaLonde chuckled when he recalled some other coaches along the Row take a look at Sager and wonder “how does she move a boat as fast as she does?”
His typical response: “She’s hard-headed, tenacious, she’s a competitor, and she’s obviously got something in her genetics that allows her to rise above her size.”
The Mount’s DiCianno, whose stature is more common among college rowers, was heavily recruited. From her short list of USC, Virginia, and UCLA, she decided to sign on with the USC Trojans.
“I knew I wanted to go far and I knew I wanted to go to warm weather,” she said. “I didn’t want to have any more cold winters erging indoors (training on an ergometer, the device which objectively measures a rower’s power and fitness). What I liked about USC was that it had the sort of family aspect that I had at the Mount, and also how competitive they are. I wanted to be in a program that could do well.”
MSJ varsity crews coach Mike McKenna commented “She’s probably the best we’ve ever had in terms of raw physical ability. She was noticeable right from the beginning, and she developed solid technique pretty quickly.”
As a sophomore in the Magic’s varsity eight, she was grouped in with a bunch of seniors who went on to strong programs at UCLA, Virginia, Duke and Stanford.
“The coaches would come to look at our seniors, and they’d see Darian and say ‘who’s that?’ “ McKenna recalled. “I told them they’d have to wait a few more years for her.”
Neither she nor Sager had anything in their family backgrounds that steered them towards the sport. Sager had an uncle who had rowed at Syracuse University, but he didn’t live near her family, and she didn’t handle an oar in earnest until the eighth grade. That’s when SCH athletes usually first venture into the rowing tank in the school’s field house, and have their first confrontation with an ergometer.
She rowed in a novice quad as a freshman, then moved up into the varsity quad in 10th grade.
“It was a big step when she got into the varsity quad as a sophomore,” LaLonde said, “but I think that it was towards the end of her junior year that she made the real commitment.”
The boat claimed a gold medal at Stotesbury, and silver at the SRAA’s.
DiCianno had no rowers in her family, but her father had been an 800-meter runner at the University of Miami and her mother swam competitively in high school. The younger DiCianno was a year-round swimmer for many years, but she’d heard about the crew program at the Mount, and the summer after graduating from Ancillae Assumpta grad school in Wyncote she enrolled in various rowing camps and met MSJ novice coach Stuart Chase.
“A lot of sports are team-oriented, but in rowing you absolutely have to work together or you won’t succeed, and I found that fascinating,” she recalled. “It’s not like basketball where you can have that one person make a shot at the end and win the game; in rowing if just one person doesn’t pull the entire time the whole boat’s going to be off.”
Chase encouraged her to attend “some camp” early in her freshman year. It turned out to be one of the regional camps where the U.S. Rowing program identifies national junior team prospects. In her first timed two-kilometer session on an ergometer (she remembers starting off incorrectly at the finish of a stroke, instead of the “catch,” or beginning), she turned in a time of seven minutes, 39 seconds, a figure out of reach for legions of more experienced oarswomen.
Early in her Mount career, she participated in the U.S. developmental program briefly, but soon decided it was not for her.
“I did the whole thing with swimming at that high performance level and I got a little burned out,” she said. “I didn’t want that to happen with rowing, because it was something I wanted to do all through high school and continue in college. I actually swam at the Mount into the middle of my sophomore year, but I stopped because I wanted to focus more on crew.”
SCH’s Sager found herself at a crossroads at the end of her junior year, when half of her crewmates in the successful varsity quad were graduating. Ultimately, she wound up in a single for her senior season, repeatedly racing against girls with more experience in solo rowing.
“I got used to the single during the fall,” she related, “then all winter I worked on getting my erg score down because I knew that I would need it going against the open-weights.”
“Mentally, when you’re racing in a single it’s completely different than being in a boat full of girls,” she explained. “It really keeps you honest, because whether you win or lose, it’s all on you, and you have to be self-motivated.”
LaLonde recalled, “She just jumped in and did it; there was no hesitation. To be as successful as she was in the single, I think you’ve got to make a decision about it. What she achieved, she did more on force – and force of will – than just on technique.”
While the Mount’s DiCianno remained in an eight throughout her career, Coach McKenna saw significant changes from year to year.
“Where she grew dramatically was emotionally, and in her mental approach,” he said. “She developed into a leader and a mature individual who knew exactly what she wanted to do, and why. She was aware of what was going on in the boat around her, and I could get some valuable feedback from her after races.”
DiCianno pointed out that she learned a lot about the dynamic within a boat from the seniors who were in the varsity eight during her sophomore season.
“I really looked up to them,” she remembered. “Basically, they taught me how to be a leader, how to carry myself, and how to succeed.”
McKenna opined, “It wouldn’t surprise me if she blossomed into a true team leader at USC. She was supportive of the other girls in her boat, and she provided some stability behind the scenes. She’s a very likable kid, and I think she would tend to enhance the chemistry of any crew she’s a part of.”