Meet the Team: Zoe Vais, Middle School Program Specialist

Our team continues to grow with energetic, talented and charismatic staff mates. While Zoe has been part of the greater GPRF organization for over six years, her role as the Middle School Program Specialist is new to her, and the foundation, and we can't wait to see where it takes us!

How long have you been part of the GPRF?

I originally joined the GPRF back in 2015. I applied for a coaching position with the PRC novice team and was offered a position with the GPRF, as an Americorps Up2Us Coach. I worked part time with Erg Ed/the GPRF, and part time with the PRC novices. It was awesome. Since then I've held various roles at the GPRF, including Design and Communications Specialist, and now, Middle School Programs Specialist.

How does your position impact the GPRF?

My role as Middle School Programs Specialist is going to help bring the two ends of the GPRF's work together. The GPRF has these two incredible things already happening: Erg Ed in the schools, and a really well established scholarship program for families and athletes to apply for. The programs we are building now, Camp Lucy and Discovery Crew, will fill the gap between these two, by providing free learn-to-row enrichment programs for middle schoolers who are interested in rowing, but maybe fall through the cracks somewhere between trying the ergs in Erg Ed and getting themselves signed up for a novice program. These programs are being built to address the factors we think can help more kids try rowing, with no long term commitment, but ample opportunity and support to continue rowing if they enjoy it.

Where and when did you start rowing?

I learned to row at the University of Washington in 2010. I had played water polo and swam in high school in California, and didn't see a lot of pathways to keep playing water polo in college, especially outside of California. I LOVED "wa-po", but felt like my team had been full of great athletes, with no one to develop us. I decided that I could instead seek a different sport, and prioritize what I actually wanted, which was to be part of a team that had athletes and coaches who wanted to work hard to be excellent.

I decided to go to UW before I knew about their rowing team, and when I got to campus, the rowing team was the joke of Welcome Week, because the rowers were walking around campus with oars and inviting EVERY tall or tiny person to come row. Well, it worked on me. I came down to Conibear for the info meeting and was intrigued. After the meeting, we signed some interest forms, and I introduced myself to a girl next to me. Cassie, who happened to live in the same dorm hallway as me, agreed to ride bikes to practice each day together, and we became best friends.

Once we were hooked, and learned how hard rowing was, Cassie and I made a deal to stick it out together for one year, so we could experience the spring racing season before we gave up. If it weren't for Cassie, I would have quit over winter break. I called her crying and said, "I'm so sorry, Cassie..." and she said "Nope! I don't want to hear it! You're not quitting. We had a deal!" and hung up. I thought, "she's right, we had a deal!" and pushed through winter break training on my own at the YMCA.

Cassie's energy and love of racing carried me through freshman year, and while she didn't stay on the team through graduation, I continued to row with her in mind throughout my four year rowing career. I was never a spectacular rower, but had some successes, like making the racing squad my sophomore year, and being runner up for the team-elected Commodore. I knew I wouldn't continue to pursue a competitive rowing career after college, but wanted to figure out how to stay connected to the sport. Our coach, Bob Ernst, once told us about his former athlete, Lori Dauphiny, who had been small for a UW rower, who worked hard for every chance she got, and went on to be a really wonderful coach for the Princeton program. I just really resonated with that and thought, "that could be me! Maybe I could leave a mark on this sport through coaching." At the end of my Senior year, I asked Bob if I could be considered for the intern coach position, and Bob, who didn't give compliments easily, looked at me in his intimidating way and said "Zoe, you are exactly the type of person a parent would want to coach their kid".

What is your favourite memory of rowing?

To be honest, every memory listed above holds deep meaning to me, because each of those moments was small, but absolutely changed my life. I think about those small forks in the road so often, because they led me to this position and this community that I care about so much now.

A top ten actual rowing memory: The first time I felt the boat really running. It was my sophomore year, and I was being shuffled around in the fours group, and it was our first morning in this lineup (which later became our lineup for the racing season). It was dark out, and I remember I could barely see anything, just some ripples moving through the reflections on the surface of the water. We were barely into our warmup and we were dead quiet, and things just kinda clicked into place and we started really gliding. It was just so set, so smooth, and nearly effortless to move so well together. We were just in perfect sync, and it felt like magic.

Who inspires you the most in the sport?

My teammates! Past and present. I always find it motivating to push for the other people in my boat, or on my team. I continue to feel amazed by my former teammates as they pursue rowing on the world stage, and break records and barriers in the sport.

In life?

Strong women who make an impact on the lives of others. Karla Landis, former Deputy Director of the GPRF, is a great example. She is a rockstar person who dreams big and then makes the dream happen. She takes on big challenges and is willing to do the heavy lifting to get the job done. Karla is a person who makes everyone feel included, seen, and welcome. She moves through life with a lot of curiosity and playfulness, and I really admire that. Karla's influence on the beginning stages of the GPRF Erg Ed and Scholarship/outreach (formerly Row to the Future) programming cannot be understated.

How has your rowing experience changed during COVID-19?

During Covid, I had the chance to coach so many more groups at the boathouse than ever before! I was able to coach junior programs, Sculling 2, private lessons, and the Ancient Mariners. I learned a lot about rowing in the process, and witnessed the athletes in all of these groups really grow their skills and leadership through rowing in singles. I was so proud of how everyone adopted the safety protocols and kept our whole, multi-faceted community safe. We learned a lot about team dynamics and how to create a valuable and growth-oriented experience for every athlete in the boathouse.

What advice would you give to someone considering rowing for the first time?

Listen carefully to instructions, and ask lots of questions! Use your voice to speak up if you are confused, or to alert a coach or teammates to something that you need help with. Learning to row takes a lot of steps that have to go in the right order, so pay attention and take the time to learn the basics well, and it will make rowing more fun down the line.

Do you have a favourite workout?

4 stations: core, bike, erg, lifting

Each station is 10 minutes of 50 seconds on, 10 seconds off "full tilt" intervals, 3 minutes between stations.

It's hard, but moves quickly so it stays motivating and energized

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