Nov. 12, 2013
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Late in the fall of 2011, members of the Louisville rowing team were told about a newcomer who would be joining the program for the start of the spring semester in early January. Many of the details about this newcomer were somewhat vague to the team, but the one detail that stood out was where she was moving from.
"I remember (coach) Derek (Copeland) talking about how this girl from Belarus was coming to Louisville and everyone was excited to meet her," Hannah Ritter would later say about future teammate and friend Darya Marchanka. "She came here while we were in Florida for spring training so I didn't actually meet her until we returned. All I really knew about her was that she was a girl from Belarus who didn't speak a lot of English."
More than two years later, Ritter and Marchanka are not only key pace-setters for the Cardinals' varsity eight boat, but also roommates and close friends on a team built on relationships, hard work and commitment to a unified goal of succeeding on and off the water.
"I feel like we're a whole a team of best friends," said Marchanka, who along with Ritter, have walked completely different paths to a very similar place as potential All-Americans for one of the nation's fastest rising rowing programs in the Derby City.
A senior from Louisville and a graduate of Louisville Classical Academy, Ritter found the Cardinals' rowing program as a novice walk-on following 14 years of ballet. By the time she reached her senior year in high school, Ritter had twice auditioned and been accepted for the American Ballet Theatre's summer program but had yet to attend. While delaying her potential move into the real world of ballet, she was contacted by the coaching staff at Louisville and became interested in pursuing rowing.
She eventually decided to step away from ballet and instead step into a boat, where it became evident she was at home. Though challenging at times and very much different than ballet, Ritter found her place as a Louisville rower moving quickly from the novice squad into a seat in a varsity boat before her freshman season had ended.
"It was completely overwhelming my novice year. I came from a ballet background where everything is really pretty and dainty and delicate, but with this, it's like you row until you pass out and that's the norm," explained Ritter. "It was scary in one sense during my novice year and moving into a varsity boat that year was really scary. I had a senior in the boat with me and here I was as a freshman novice who had been rowing for all of five months and had no idea what I was doing."
Despite her fears and lack of experience during the transition from novice to varsity status in that first season, the talent and ability found in Ritter was evident to everyone on the team. Three years later, as one of the leaders on the Cardinals' varsity eight crew, Ritter has earned the respect of her teammates on the water.
"Everybody here calls her magic in a boat. She's very elegant in a boat and even though elegant isn't always productive, it works for her," said Derek Copeland, who is in his second season as head coach of the Cardinals following two seasons as an assistant at Louisville. "The best ballerinas are elegant but they're also tough and there's something that correlates for Hannah with her background and what she can do in the boat. She also has a lot of killer instinct and that, with her experience in ballet, is the perfect combination for what I think is important to rowing."
It was midway through her sophomore season with the Cardinals that Ritter and the rest of her Louisville teammates learned of the pending arrival of Marchanka. Hailing from Minsk, Belarus, Marchanka had never been to the United States before making the more than 20-hour flight from her hometown in Eastern Europe to the Bluegrass State. After first meeting Copeland at the 2011 World Rowing Junior Championships in London in early August of that year, Marchanka found herself moving to Louisville less than five months later following a whirlwind fall and early winter.
"Everything happened so fast. It was December when I learned that I was officially moving to Louisville, so I only had a month to prepare," she said. "When I got here, it was tough because so many things happened so fast for me to be able to be here and I didn't really know what I was doing. The first week or two, I was really lost but I eventually adjusted to this life and to the people. It was crazy."
One of the biggest issues for Marchanka during her transition to Louisville was the language barrier. With Belarusian and Russian serving as the primary languages in Belarus, Marchanka wasn't nearly as comfortable with the English language as she made her move to America. Early in the recruiting process, Copeland recognized the improvement needed for Marchanka in that area, but he also saw her immense talent on the water.
"I met her in London at the 2011 Junior World Championships and even though her English was not good, it took less than two minutes for me to realize that I was going to do all I could to get her here," Copeland explained. "We talked weekly even after we signed her in order to allow her to practice her English so that she'd be ready for life here. She is talented and skilled in the boat and her best days on the water are still ahead of her."
As Marchanka made her move to Louisville in early January 2012, Ritter and her future teammates were in Florida for a spring training trip. As they returned, Ritter met her new teammate for the first time and the language barrier created some fun memories for everyone.
"I thought she was really nice but she didn't talk at all. She didn't say anything but when you'd ask her something, she'd respond with something else. We'd ask her how she was doing and she's reply with something like `I like your dress.' We tried to have conversations but we'd miss the mark a bit," Ritter said while laughing throughout the recount.
A life-changing move to a new continent while joining a new team at the midway point of the season would seem frightening for most people. For Marchanka, an economics major at Louisville, reviewing the move and the days that followed seem almost surreal even today.
"People ask me if I was scared when I moved here but I wasn't scared. It was more of a daze for me," she said. "It was almost like watching a film and then waking up and wondering what's going on around you. When I look back on it, I can't believe I came here almost not knowing English."
As practice began on the water in the spring of 2012, Ritter and Marchanka were assigned to the same varsity boat but were two seats apart from one another. A few months later, they were paired next to one another in the Cardinals' varsity eight boat in the fall of 2012 with Marchanka in the stroke seat and Ritter in the seven seat. It was that tactical move by Copeland that pushed the friendship to another level.
"It's different when the person is right in front of you rather than a couple of seats back where you can't see her. After races, she is the first person I go to whether we win or lose and she's the most immediate person in the boat to me. We talk to each other in the boat all of the time," said Ritter, who is working towards her degree in computer information systems. "I think being a pair partner, especially because we're a stern pair and leading everyone in the boat, definitely creates a stronger bond."
That bond was at its best in the water in April when the Cardinals, ranked No. 18 in the nation at the time, traveled to the Clemson Invitational and took down the 14th-ranked and host Tigers. It capped a great weekend of racing for Louisville, which also defeated No. 19 Cornell and No. 20 Duke.
"Our boat and the Clemson boat were very close for most of the 2K but we surged ahead late to get the win," said Marchanka in reviewing the win.
"As soon as we crossed the finish line, I threw my oar and grabbed Dasha (as she is known to her teammates) to celebrate," said Ritter.
The competition on the water against another boat is something Louisville tries to replicate in training each day. That competition is what drives both Ritter and Marchanka while also creating an even stronger bond throughout the Cardinals' program.
"There's healthy competition within the team to push each other and that translates to great competition against other teams on the water," said Marchanka. "That competition inside the team creates a bond that helps bring us together on the water."
"Having rowers like Darya in the program helps me and helps everyone because I know she's there working just as hard or even harder to achieve the same goal I want. I know I have to rise to her level and we all push one another," Ritter explained. "What sold me on rowing and rowing at Louisville was the reward that comes afterwards. When you win a race, you know you've put in so much effort and so much work that and because of the number of hours you've logged at that point, makes the success that much better. You also have so many people with you and supporting you and going there with you. You can see your best friends in front of you pushing themselves like you are and it's more than family."
Prior to the start of the fall semester earlier this year, Marchanka and Ritter became roommates along with another teammate, Elise Valantine. As the friendship for two of the Cardinals' top rower has reached a new level this fall, the chemistry throughout the Louisville team has also increased. That has reflected in speed on the water and excitement throughout the G. Garvin Brown III Rowing Center.
"We're easily six months ahead of where we were last season in terms of speed on the water and that's exciting," said Marchanka. "It's nice to see how fast we've progressed this fall and I like seeing us improve as a team."
That speed on the water has raised the bar for everyone inside the Louisville program. With team goals that include winning a conference championship, advancing to the NCAA Championship and achieving a Top 10 finish nationally as well as individual goals that include earning All-America honors, both Ritter and Marchanka expect big things from the Cardinals in the spring. And as the pace-setters on arguably the most talented squad in school history, that is precisely the type of leadership needed for the Louisville rowing team to rise to a new level among the nation's top programs in 2014.