2018-RHAM graduate Alex Heline was a member of WPI’s varsity eight+ rowing team that won the Division III National Championship on May 28. Pictured are: back row (l-r): Melissa Bazakas-Chamberlain, Heline, Logan Rinaldi, Emily Adams, Ashley Schuliger; front row: Megan Tupaj, Caitlin Kean, Lilly Earley, and Maren Cork.
When Alex Heline graduated from RHAM High School in 2018, she had never rowed competitively in her life.
Four years later, Heline is a national champion rower.
Heline, a senior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), was one of nine girls who powered a boat that won the varsity eight+ Division III NCAA rowing championship at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Fla. on May 28.
It marked the first national championship for the program and the rowers joined the 1986 men’s golf team as the only national champions in school history.
“When we crossed that finish line it was almost disbelief,” recalled Heline. “It was an incredible feeling, working with those eight people in that boat. There was a level of trust in each other that we could do something like that, but it was insane to see that outcome happen.”
It was a miraculous accomplishment for Heline and her team, who didn’t qualify for the national tournament a season ago and were ranked 4th heading into the championship weekend.
WPI rowing head coach Jason Steele referred to the title team as “a Cinderella story.”
In the boat with Heline were senior Melissa Bazakas-Chamberlain, senior Caitlin Kean, senior Ashley Schuliger, senior Emily Adams, junior Lilly Earley, junior Maren Cork, sophomore Megan Tupaj, and junior coxswain Logan Rinaldi.
The well-rounded team held off runner-up Wellesley for the championship triumph, finishing the grueling 2,000 meter race in 6:55.265, three seconds faster than their conference and state rivals. They also finished over eight second ahead of top-ranked Ithaca College, who had previously beaten WPI by a wide margin in an event just a few weeks prior to the national championships.
On May 27, WPI edged Ithaca in the trial heat, which Heline said gave the team confidence they could compete against the best-of-the-best in the grand finale the following day.
Heline, who was one of five seniors in the championship boat, joined the Engineers’ rowing squad her freshman year along with Adams, who was her roommate during her first year at WPI.
Heline credited the seasoned seniors, who had years of rowing experience prior to college, for showing the two newbies the ropes, adding, “Athletes like Ashley, Caitlin and Melissa were someone to look up to.”
Heline played multiple sports during her childhood before specializing in tennis while at RHAM, becoming a two-time all-conference player on the courts Hebron.
Once in Worcester, she played club tennis before reaching out to Steele midway through her freshman year and the rest is history.
“[Alex] began as a complete novice and now stands as a National Champion,” said Steele. “The reason for this improvement is her commitment to the process and a true understanding the goal is pursuit of one’s potential.”
Steele added that Heline’s possessed all the tools needed to be a champion rower, saying, “Alex is a powerful athlete and a determined competitor. She has brought significant high-end athleticism and great focus on race day.”
Despite the restrictions of the last couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team began to find their rhythm prior to the championship in Saratoga.
Heline said “trust” was the key factor in the team’s chemistry, adding, “Knowing that when each person steps in that boat they are going to put everything in motivates you to put everything that you have into each practice, each race.”
The team first started focusing on a potential national championship run in the spring of last year. They were at the WPI campus during the 2021 national championship and set their sights on a return to the big stage.
12 months later, the team was crowned champions thanks to a focus on the smallest details, which Heline said made the difference.
Heline recalled that Steele would always ask the rowers to give feedback after races and practices. She added the strategy bonded the team and improved the trust within the boat.
“That was a constant theme throughout the season. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t leave anything behind,” added Heline, who called the race “exhausting” and said each of the rowers reacted differently following the win—ranging from screaming to doubling over in disbelief to hugging and crying.
“That realization that we won was just crazy,” added Heline, “We may not have expected it to turn out this way but it was very special that it did.”
It was a busy month for Heline, who graduated from WPI with a degree in mechanical engineering on May 15.
She will soon be heading back to Connecticut to start an engineering job with Pratt and Whitney in July, but is currently overseas finishing up her rowing career at WPI by competing in London as part of the program’s trip they take to England every two to three years.
Whether or not rowing is part of Heline’s future plans is undecided for now. However, she said she will miss competing and would love to stay involved in the sport in some capacity.
Leave a Reply.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin