Sculling for the national team |

Sculling for the national team

Darin Olde, Tribune Sportswriter

Who was Erick Leurken?

That’s what rowing teams at Loyola Marymount University, Chapman University, U.C. Davis, Humboldt State University and the University of Oregon want to know.

They’re still smarting from his surprise, first-place single scull finish in the Pacific Coast Rowing Championships in Sacramento last May, an event that draws the top college level rowers in the western United States.

They had never seen the senior Willamette University Bearcat before; it was, after all, Leurken’s second single scull competition ever.

His first was last April in the Northwest Conference Championship, where he took first, he’s says, by a ways.

“You never know the caliber of the guy you’re going to be racing,” Leurken said from his home, in Seattle, Wash.

That may have given him the edge in Sacramento, where the 1998 South Tahoe High School grad was the sole representative from Willamette.

Leurken took the lead initially, and kept it, battling a headwind that knocked the racers’ speed in half. He finished the 2,000-meter race in 8 minutes, 30 seconds.

“In the first half I had a pretty good lead. Then I extended the lead in the last half but not by as much,” he said.

Leurken, 22, got into the scull after breaking his back in a sweep competition during his junior year.

The Bearcats were in the middle of a race, battling for the lead against Pacific Lutheran, their primary rival, when he felt something give in his lower back.

“At the 800-meter mark I felt a slight pop, my back got very, very warm, and then it got painful,” he said.

Willamette still finished third. Leurken never stopped rowing.

Leurken got carried out of the boat and essentially kissed the rest of his season goodbye.

Several months later he received medical care at Emerald Bay Physical Therapy in South Lake Tahoe.

“By the time he got here, his fracture had pretty much healed. It was a matter of getting him back in shape,” said Chris Proctor, Leurken’s therapist.

Proctor said the problem was that there was no quick-fix surgery for Leurken’s back, and that he was still feeling a lot of pain.

Eventually they eliminated the pain and got him back to a training regime that would enable him to race again, but not with the heavy, team boats involved with sweeping.

Leurken decided to purchase a scull — a single boat, 28 feet long, less than 30 pounds and 10 inches wide.

It was lighter and easier on his body.

Willamette, however, didn’t have much of a scull program. So Leurken rented a sculling tutorial video that showed Olympic rowers in action.

After studying the motion and practicing, a friend filmed Leurken so he could compare his own footage to that of the Olympic athletes.

Willamette coach Rodney Mott also handed Leurken more than 40 tips for improvement.

It all added up to making Leurken a regional champion.

After stunning the rowing world by winning the PCRC, Leurken was invited by Doug Nelson to join the Lake Washington Rowing Club in Seattle.

“The coach said he was starting an elite program,” Leurken said.

The goal is to elevate rowers to the U.S. national team, a goal Leurken embraces.

Eventually he’d like to compete in the 2004 Olympics.

“If I can stay healthy, I stand a pretty good chance,” Leurken said. “I think I can make it.”

Support Local Journalism

Your support means a better informed community. Donate today.