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Teenager moves to top of her class

By John Powers
Globe Staff / October 20, 2011

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It’s not as though she’ll have a lot of time to daydream at 35,000 feet on her way here from Southern California. This is, after all, a school day. “I’ll have to work on the plane,’’ Mackenzi Sherman figured. There’s a paper to write on “A Separate Peace’’. Some anatomy reading. And probably an SAT prep manual to peruse. Nobody else in the women’s championship singles field at this weekend’s 47th Head of the Charles regatta has to do homework, but nobody else still is in high school.

Sherman is 17, the youngest sculler among the 27 entrants by five years. Last autumn she rowed here with the Long Beach Rowing Association’s youth four. This time Sherman is going solo and because she rowed in the US quad at the August world junior championships in England, the rules say she has to compete in Saturday’s elite event here.

That means that Sherman will be paddling in the fast lane with the big girls like New Zealand’s Emma Twigg, the world bronze medalist, and US teamer Gevvie Stone, who has won the event twice in the last three years. And the new kid won’t be starting at the back of the pack. She drew bow No. 10, just ahead of Sarah Trowbridge, who rowed the double at the global regatta. “I don’t know why they stuck me there,’’ said Sherman, who says she can count her races in the single on one hand. “But that’s where I am.’’

Taking the line anywhere in the championship event against women twice her age would have seemed ludicrous to her three years ago, when she first pulled an oar. “If you’d asked me then if I’d be where I am now, I would have laughed,’’ Sherman said. “I would never have believed it.’’

A random glimpse led her to the boathouse. “My family used to go kayaking,’’ she said. “We saw a rowing team on the water and I said oh, Dad, I want to do that.’’ So Sherman, who lives in landlocked Los Alamitos, scouted out possible locations (“I think we Googled it.’’) and turned up at the Long Beach club, which for decades has accommodated everyone from Olympians to recreational rowers.

Sherman quickly made the progression from ergometer to wherry to four-oared shell and last year ended up rowing both in the quad that won the youth nationals and in the double that finished second. “After we medaled I said, OK, I like sculling better,’’ she said. Before long Sherman was in the US development pipeline, going to ID camps and, then, selection camps.

“Do you think I could make a team or something?’’ she asked Rebeca Felix, who’d won junior gold with the US eight in 2009 before heading for Stanford and who Sherman considers a mentor. Felix assured her that she could and Sherman seat-raced herself into the quad and went to Eton Dorney, the rowing venue for next year’s Summer Games. “It was amazing,’’ she said. “We got to race on the course for the Olympics. It was so cool.’’

That was Sherman’s debut for Uncle Sam and she and her seatmates found themselves scrambling to avoid finishing last in the six-boat final, which was where they were midway along. “We said OK, we’ve got to do this,’’ she recalled. “We came this far.’’ A surge in the final 500 meters got the Americans into third place for a few strokes. “Then Romania walked through us,’’ said Sherman, whose boat missed the bronze by barely half a second. “As soon as we crossed the line, I knew we didn’t get it.’’

But she’d had a tantalizing taste of what could be ahead if she keeps pushing herself. “In the log books at camp all the girls were writing: See you at the Olympics in 2016,’’ Sherman said. The next five years will be about college - she’ll be checking out the University of Virginia before heading home - and about continuing her sculling apprenticeship. While she enjoys the quad (“team boats are fun’’), Sherman is intrigued with the single, which she began racing to increase her speed.

Her first foray into the tipsiest of shells was just short of terrifying, as it is for most newbies. “I thought it was scary,’’ she said. “I thought I was going to flip all the time. Every time my oar wouldn’t come through all the way I’d freak out and stop and try to get rid of the butterflies.’’

Racing a single in world-class company is challenging enough. Doing it on the Charles, with its multiple bridges, its snake-shaped 3-mile upstream course and its whimsical winds, is masochistic. “It’ll definitely be more challenging,’’ says Sherman, who has had the luxury of a coxswain in her two previous appearances here. “It makes you appreciate what they do so much more. All you have to do is pull hard.’’

This time she’ll be all alone on a personal voyage, which is what single sculling is about. “You learn a lot about yourself,’’ she said. “Determination and stuff.’’ Sherman has that and more, believes coach Ian Simpson, who says that his precocious pupil has both the aptitude and the attitude to excel in what may be the sport’s most competitive event. “She has made the hard decision, which is to row the single, which is a lonely existence,’’ he said.

Sherman will be far from lonely on Saturday afternoon, with 17 rivals trying to pass her while thousands of people watch from alongside and above. “It’s giving her an opportunity that she would not otherwise have to row against people of this caliber,’’ said Simpson. “It is an experience that very few young rowers ever have.’’

Sherman already has been doubly fortunate, getting into the event off the waiting list and getting a starting spot (via a blind draw) that her elders would kill for. “The reality is that some people around her are going to be much faster than she is,’’ her coach said. “She’s going to be passed and she’ll have the opportunity to hold people off as long as she can and hopefully not impede anyone.’’

Unlike the world championships there are no lanes on the river, so interference and collisions are occupational hazards. But since Head races follow a single-file, elapsed-time format, only the clock matters. So if Sherman’s time is close enough to the winner’s, she’ll earn a youth medal for her trouble. Nobody else in the field is eligible for that.

The best thing about racing the single is that Sherman doesn’t need permission from the RMV. When she makes her morning trek to the boathouse, she has to have an adult riding shotgun. “I drive my Mom down,’’ she said. “I’m trying to get my license but I didn’t have time over the summer. I was gone too long.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.