As silver linings go, Ryan Elsinga's may be about as glittering as it gets. As a third former in the winter of 2016, Elsinga was one of the stars of the varsity ski team, consistently putting up points for Salisbury as one of the top-five finishers week after week. He gave every indication of rising into the ranks of elite slalom racers within another season or two.
Then came catastrophe. In the final week of the season, during the Berkshire Ski League Championships, Elsinga took a spill on his second run in the giant slalom: he had torn his meniscus, MCL, and ACL. Hobbled and heavily braced, he finished the trimester, earning the Honors List for the first time. Surgery at Boston Children's Hospital would ensue, followed by weeks on crutches and a long, slow recovery that stretched across the spring trimester, summer vacation, fall of his fourth-form year, and beyond.
The following winter, Elsinga gave up skiing, moving into the front office of the Recreational Basketball League to serve as assistant to commissioner Jeff Ruskin. To all appearances, Elsinga's athletic career on the Hilltop had reached a nadir in what was now his third straight trimester without a sport, a team, or any competition. Academics continued to hold strong, though, as the fledgling scholar would rack up five consecutive trimesters on Honors by the end of his fourth-form year, but as an athlete he appeared to be at a standstill. Water-boy for rec hoops? Seriously?
Whoa. Let's take a little closer look. While nobody was paying attention, Elsinga had already begun a metamorphosis that would elevate him to the highest echelon of elite rowers for his age-group in the country. That's right: in the whole U-S-of-A. He helped Salisbury's first varsity four to a 9th-place finish in a field of 85 boats at the Head of the Charles in Boston, the largest fall gathering of rowers in the world. In an event dominated by rowing clubs, Salisbury was the first American school (behind two Canadian high schools) to cross the finish line in the Men's Youth Fours, defeating a St. Paul's of London boat, in the process, that set the record last year for a schoolboy crew over a 2000-meter course.
"How'd he pull that off?" one might ask of Elsinga's Lazarus act.
Good question. And "pulling," in fact, has an awful lot to do with this story.
As a third former, Elsinga, then a six-footer, had stroked the novice eight in the fall crew program. His next appearance in a Salisbury shell would not be until spring of fourth form, when he moved into the "engine room" – the seats in the middle of a shell, occupied by the most powerful rowers – as the #4-oar on the second varsity boat that went on to medal with a third-place finish at the New England's. While most of the crew program's followers were focused on a first eight that went undefeated on its way to winning the New England Championship that spring, denizens of the Curtis Boathouse began to sit up and take notice of the now 6'3" prodigy in the second eight.
Last fall, Elsinga moved up to the first varsity four for the "head racing" season. In the spring, now an increasingly oarsman-like 6'4", he took over the #5-seat in the engine room of the first varsity boat. And this fall, at a strapping 6'6", Elsinga is back in the first four with what looks like the core of a very competitive eight this coming spring, including veteran stroke Kevin Warming, Jackson Polverari joining Elsinga in the e.r., Riley Johnson in the bow, and Matt Wesson coxing. After a fifth-form year that saw Elsinga achieve the High Honors List for the first time in the fall and then complete the hat-trick with
High Honors performances in the winter and spring, is it any surprise that such high-caliber schools as Cornell, Syracuse, and Boston University have all come courting?
Success stories like Elsinga's do not happen overnight, regardless of appearances to those outside a relatively small circle. And that's where the silver lining comes in. While he was rehabbing from the ski injury, Elsinga discovered "erg-ing," working out on indoor rowing machines also known as "ergometers." Remember the aforementioned "pulling"? Handles attach to a flywheel on the erg to replicate the pulling of the oar that rowers perform on the water. The seat on the erg, meanwhile, slides back and forth like those in a shell.
Actually, Elsinga's first encounter with an erg came as a seventh grader. Noting that his son already stood 5'10", Elsinga's father, a former marathon champion, remarked one day, "You're getting tall: you should start working out on the erg to learn to row." And so Elsinga headed to the basement of the family home in Roxbury, Connecticut, where his father worked out on the spiny-looking machine over in one corner.
"To tell the truth," Elsinga chuckles now about his early experience, "the erg was a completely foreign machine at that point. I had seen how sweaty my dad looked after one of his workouts, and I wasn't interested at all, not even curious to watch him when he was on the erg."
Nevertheless, Elsinga tried it out. Workouts spurred an interest in rowing, and after his eighth-grade year, he enrolled in the Salisbury Rowing Camp here on the Hilltop and rowed on water for the very first time. The following fall, 2015, he began his career as a student at Salisbury School.
Once he was cleared by doctors to do so, Elsinga started erg-ing in earnest during the summer after his third-form year and continued every chance he had while he was sidelined for the first two seasons of fourth form. "The knee injury hampered my progress," he notes. "It was tough lying on my bed with the surgically repaired knee, knowing that other rowers were improving while I was immobile. There was an upside, though" – ah! another silver lining! – "in that I began to invest more in academics."
That sharpening of his academic focus included not only Elsinga's discovering particular interests in writing, sociology, and computer programming but also his dedicating himself more seriously to developing his skills as a trumpeter. Today, after six years of study, he is a featured soloist in the jazz band. "Jazz is completely separate from anything else I do," Elsinga observes. "It is a totally different form of expression and a most welcome escape."
Escape indeed. Erg-ing is a punishing, even violent, solitary pursuit – "pure pain" is how Elsinga describes it, laughing out loud at the insanity of his words. The faint-of-heart-and-mind need not apply. Most rowers adhere to a 90-minute regimen for their erg-workouts. Elsinga has other ideas on the subject that depart radically from the traditional wisdom, ideas that have evolved over the 28 months since he sat back down on an erg after his accident. "It's a waste of time to spend an hour-and-a-half," he asserted during a recent conversation on the subject, "when you can accomplish everything you need or want to in 40 minutes."
Compressing a normal workout on the erg by more than 50% requires pulling without a break for the entirety of those 40 minutes. (Once a week, Elsinga puts in a 60-minute session.) To complete all the pulling his daily program requires, Elsinga maintains a pace of 18-to-19 strokes per minute. His erg sessions differ from those of other rowers in another way. "Many rowers like to listen to music while
they are on the machine," Elsinga notes. "I prefer the sound of the machine. It's easier to keep my rhythm without music."
Not that music doesn't play an important role for certain sessions. The standard measure of ability for a rower on an erg is the equivalent of covering a 2000-meter course on the water. A rower's time for the equivalent distance on an erg, in other words, provides a basis for comparison between one rower's ability and another's. Top high-school rowers break 6:30. Elsinga uses two, three-minute songs to carry him through a 2K erg-trial. "I start with 'Got Time,' by Anthrax, segue-ing into 'Stone Cold Crazy,' by Queen," Elsinga earnestly explains. "Those get me through the first six minutes. At that point, I know I have 250 meters to go, and I don't want any music. It's the 'blackout phase,' time to go barbaric."
Apparently, Ryan-the-Barbarian has struck on a winning formula. Not only has he consistently broken the 6:30 barrier, with a personal best of 6:24.1, but last spring he also had the fastest erg time in the rowing program as well as the fastest sprints and fastest "steady state" (20 minutes – or more – of sustained pulling on the erg). "It's somewhat unusual," Elsinga explains, a bit of embarrassment in his voice, "for the same rower to excel in all three categories. Right now," he quickly adds, "Billy Duffy is our top steady-state performer."
But rowing, really, is all about what happens out on the water, and here is where the portrait of Elsinga as a young rower accelerates. Considerably.
Last spring, over March break, Elsinga was one of three Salisbury rowers – Kevin Warming and Brian Decelles were the others – invited to US Rowing's Identification Camp in Boston to try out for the US national training program. The audition was intense, to say the least: candidates had five hours over the course of one day to demonstrate their abilities, both on the erg and on the water. Two weeks later, a congratulatory email appeared in Elsinga's inbox: he was one of 50 under-18 rowers invited to Ashland, Oregon, for US Junior Rowing's High Performance Program. (Warming earned a spot in the Selection Program, a level above High Performance and the final stop to determine the national team.)
"High Performance is US Rowing's intermediate-level camp," Elsinga clarifies. "The top 50 rowers were invited to 'Selection Camp.' Everyone at that level has a time under 6:20 for the 2K," he adds, admiringly. "It may look as if my personal-best is close," he elaborates, "but shaving off five seconds to bring my time to that level – boy, that will take some work!"
Elsinga reported to High Performance in mid-June, following the conclusion of his fifth-form year. "The camp was a month long," he recounts, "30 to 40K per day! The toll a regimen like that takes on the body," he intones solemnly, "is incredible. Do you want to see something?" he suddenly asks his interviewer. Reaching into his pocket, Elsinga pulls out his i-phone and summons a cache of photos. The most graphic of these show hands that remind the viewer of the hideously frost-bitten extremities of Himalayan climbers. The possessor of such hands clearly endured an almost unimaginable ordeal.
In response to the obvious question about the suffering embodied by those hands, Elsinga asserts that "not a single participant at High Performance bailed out." Changing tack, perhaps to reassure the interviewer, Elsinga extols the daily menu of which he and the other rowers partook. "There was a nutritionist on the staff," he shares, "who was terrific. We learned a lot about what our bodies need to meet the extreme physical demands at this level. The key? Variety of color [in selecting food], especially bright colors."
Looking back, Elsinga muses over the path his athletic career has taken. "In the third form," he recollects, "skiing and rowing were equally attractive, though I really didn't see the prospect of competing in either sport at the college level. The injury canceled skiing. I probably would've dropped skiing even without the injury, though: height was becoming a problem. Slalom skiers have to move really fast," he points out. "It's hard for a tall person to do that."
So maybe it was inevitable, then, or maybe it truly was fated, that Ryan Elsinga would accomplish what he has – to date – as a rower. In either case, spending time around this ebulliently optimistic and supremely focused young man, one gets the feeling that finding silver linings in whatever challenges he might face has become second nature.
- Procter Smith