PHS alumna Verlinde feels at home at Mercer Lake as the PU women’s lightweight crew compete for the IRA replay

FAMILIAR WATERS: Nathalie Verlinde, far left, competes in the bow seat as Princeton University’s lightweight women’s Varsity 8 twirls through the water in a race this spring. Sophomore Verlinde, a graduate of Princeton High, will try to help the Tiger top boat repeat itself as national champion when it competes June 3-5 at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) Championships on Mercer Lake participates. During her high school career, Verlinde competed as a member of the Princeton National Rowing Association (PNRA) Mercer Junior Rowing Program at Mercer Lake. (Photo by Row2K, courtesy of Princeton Athletics)

By Justin File

Nathalie Verlinde is at home on Mercer Lake, where she will attempt to help Princeton University’s Uni-8 lightweight boat secure their place as national champions in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) championships June 3-5 to repeat.

Verlinde graduated from Princeton High and began rowing for the Princeton National Rowing Association’s (PNRA) Mercer Junior rowing program. as a high school freshman. Mercer Juniors train at Mercer Lake, and last year their high school teammates came out to watch their Tigers team win the national title in a field reduced to two by the COVID-19 pandemic. Princeton won by more than 26 seconds over Wisconsin for its first national crown since 2003.

Verlinde and Princeton, now in their second year, will have to face a full field to cap off a perfect season. The Tiger top boat has not been beaten this season as they won another gold at the Dad Vail Championships in Philadelphia on May 14 to follow a key win at the Eastern Sprints in Worcester, Mass. on May 1 .

“It was great,” Verlinde said of the Easterns’ win. “That was our biggest race so far. It was really nice to be able to compete against all the big teams on the east coast for the program for the first time in two years. It was really exciting to play against teams that we haven’t seen before and to show our best side. I think we were really proud of our performance at all events.”

Verlinde, rowing in the bow seat, is part of the returnee group that propelled the Tigers to No. 1 in the country. While last year saw few competitions and few boats to row against, advancing to the collegiate level was an important step for Verlinde.

“Last year the only thing we had was a really great incoming class and some senior leaders who were really motivated to have a great final year despite COVID,” Verlinde said.

“I think it’s been a really good time for us to integrate our newer rowers and recruits into the boats and get used to rowing with each other and competing together. I’m really glad I met the seniors who graduated last year because I think they inspired my commitment to the team and the sport. It was definitely still a valuable experience to have those races behind us and practice together all the time before we get into this year.”

This experience allowed Verlinde and her teammates to pick up where they left off. Dad Vail was their closest win yet – by two seconds over Georgetown – but Princeton has been dominant this season despite tougher competition.

“I think it’s scary having so much competition and not knowing where the programs are after not having competed against them for a while,” said Verlinde, who told the boat watch at Dad Vail at a 6:20 time .59 helped when the Hoyas arrived at 6:22.64.

“The two things we’ve done are to remember, as long as we’re working as hard as we can to improve as a boat and be the best boat we can be there’s not much else we do can, and there aren’t many other boats that can do to beat you when you have strong athletes trying their best every day. Also, I think the program has shown a lot of strength over the past year just to be able to compete and I think other teams have had to come back a little more of that post COVID and rebuild in a way that we didn’t just have to because of COVID had a lot of consistency and strength in the team. We’ve certainly benefited from that motivation and consistency through COVID, but it was a new challenge to have all the teams back on track.”

Consistency in the boat includes Verlinde. Princeton had to replace three rowers and his helmsman from last year’s national title boat. Verlinde was able to jump straight into the top varsity boat as a freshman last year and has maintained her place this year, albeit with some teammates returning from gap years.

“I was really lucky and I’m still lucky to be on this boat,” said Verlinde. “I think it was really exciting. I love sitting in the bow seat and feeling the energy from all the girls in front of me. It’s great to be a younger member of the boat and have all the guidance from the older rowers who have long competed at this level and have tips on how to handle it, college life and everything else. I couldn’t be more grateful to have been part of the 1V as an underclassman.”

Verlinde started rowing as a freshman at PHS. She’d played other sports, but either she didn’t enjoy it as much or she’d injured herself running. Her mother began rowing with the Carnegie Master’s Program when Verlinde was finishing middle school and suggested that her daughter give it a try. It wasn’t love at first sight, but Verlinde stuck with it and enjoyed rowing at Mercer Juniors for four years before arriving at Princeton University.

“There’s certainly a benefit to getting used to that training load and doing a cardio and fitness-based sport,” Verlinde said. “That was an advantage. We have guys like Kasey (Shashaty) on our double who started rowing in college and are doing an amazing job. There are times when strong athletes even go to college and learn how to do it.”

Rowing experience was a huge advantage for Verlinde. College was a step forward for her in every way, and being part of the team helped her find her way.

“It’s a great team,” said Verlinde. “It’s a really good group of motivated, ambitious athletes who are also thriving in life at Princeton. Especially last year during COVID, it was nice to have one thing that was consistently in-person and out and with other people. Coming down to the boathouse has been the only source of stability and socialization through all the changes in COVID and courses and all things college life. It’s a really valuable time to just clear my head from all the academic work and stress and focus on being comfortable on the boat and enjoying the lake. It was a really valuable experience getting to know everyone on the team and seeing how capable and motivated they are.”

Verlinde was part of a class that came to Princeton in the middle of the pandemic. Their freshman semester was off campus, but they were trying to gain meaningful experience. Winning a national title culminated in a year that was in many ways unpredictable.

“Part of it is COVID, part of it is experiencing college for the first time,” Verlinde said. “It was a lot of fun and I certainly gained a lot of new experiences. I think some parts of it were more challenging than I expected and other parts were more manageable than I expected. The transition to college is never easy but the team has certainly been a great support system, courses, however difficult, with other friends and students by your side are usually manageable and you can take a lot out of them and I think I have done It was a lot of fun being a part of the community and exploring all the opportunities it offers. I don’t know what I expected when I entered college. I think I’ve been open to a lot of opportunities but I’m pretty happy with my last two years, but they’ve gone by really quickly and it’s hard to believe I’m halfway there.”

Verlinde has made a neuroscience major and over the next two years will focus on the decision to go to medical school or research. Her focus now, with her final exams completed, is training in preparation for the national team and the chance to defend the crown against a full field in front of her hometown fans.

“I find it really exciting; of course it makes everyone a bit nervous too,” said Verlinde. “I think as long as we stay on that path of being really focused and consistent and working hard, we’re going to get everything we can out of the national team experience. We’re all pretty excited to leave the finals and the school stress behind and just focus on practicing and continuing to make the little improvements to our boat that will make it a little faster and hopefully stay ahead of the pack.”

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