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New London - This is their reward for all those punishing workouts, battling the elements and fatigue.
This is their reward for their dedication, determination and teamwork.
The Coast Guard Academy women's crew varsity eight will compete in the NCAA Division III Championship, beginning Friday at Lake Mercer in West Windsor, N.J.
The Bears received an at-large bid.
"We've been working for this," junior Catherine Schmitz said. "It's definitely a three-year experience to get to this point. I couldn't be happier. We definitely put in our work and this is finally our reward for everything that we've done these past three years."
Schmitz, of Stonington, and East Lyme High School graduate Brynna Cooke, a freshman, join coxswain Julianna Harvin, Sarah Jane Otey, Holly Madden, Tiffany Zehnle, Erin Nolan, Kelli Normoyle and Jess Ward in the boat.
Coach Jen Meuse, in her fourth season, had a five-year plan to reach nationals after taking over the program, so the Bears are ahead of schedule.
"It's satisfying but not because I reached my goal," Meuse said. "It's satisfying because the girls that were able to do it have been working on this goal for four years. And this was absolutely their last shot for the majority of them."
Six members of the varsity eight graduated last week. Since then, they've been devoting their time to prepare for the biggest race of their career.
Workouts sometimes start at sunrise. The Bears thoroughly enjoy their morning time on the Thames River.
"Waking up and getting out on the water at 5 o'clock in the morning is not very appealing to most people," Schmitz said. "But when you're out on the water with your best friends and the sun is rising, and you're working hard, there's nothing better."
"It's addicting," Cooke added.
Both Schmitz and Cooke knew what they were getting into when they joined the crew team. They both competed in high school and wanted to continue in college. They also shared a thirst for adventure and a desire to serve their country.
"I wanted something that wasn't the typical college experience," said Schmitz whose brother, Paul, graduated from the Academy in 2009. "I wanted something fulfilling and something that I could grow from the experience. ... I realized this is definitely was going to be a challenge. And it has definitely lived up to my expectations of a challenge."
Cooke also had a Coast Guard connection. Her father is a retired Navy liaison for the Coast Guard. She liked the structure at the Academy.
"I actually came here for traveling opportunities," Cooke said. "It's a phenomenal education... and definitely a challenge."
Coast Guard faces a major challenge at the NCAA Championship. The Bears moved into position to earn an at-large berth by placing second at the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference Championship for the second straight year.
This is the program's sixth trip to the nationals, but first since 2008.
Meuse has worked hard to advance the program, recruiting on campus to build the roster to 35 - the biggest number in four years. The majority of team members never competed in crew until college.
But they all possess the right attitude to succeed.
"The type of athlete that's attracted to Coast Guard in the first place is really looking to be better than average," Meuse said.
Coast Guard faces some stiff competition in the NCAA Championship, racing against Williams, NEWMAC champion Wellesley and Puget Sound in its first heat on Friday. Williams, Bates, Marietta, Trinity and William Smith also are in the field.
The top teams qualify for the Grand Final on Saturday.
The Bears are optimistic about their chances.
"We always say that we're the Coast Guard underdogs," Schmitz said. "We haven't been to the nationals in awhile. We want to do our best and put our name out there and have a great race."