Paynter joins list of Old Lyme’s rowing success stories, heads to world championship
Hannah Paynter graduated from Princeton in 2019 and was at home in Lyme, training during the pandemic.
The image she has of that time is just one of many she carries from throughout her rowing career, but one she associates with her hometown.
Because the use of the boathouse at Rogers Lake in Old Lyme was somewhat off limits during the COVID-19 stoppage in 2020, Paynter was launching her boat from her best friend’s backyard.
“You don’t stop training,” Paynter said. “I had a whole program. I walked down the street with my boat at Rogers Lake. People just out for their daily walk would say, ’Is that heavy?’ ’You go girl!’ One man has a parrot that lived outside and every day, the parrot would announce my arrival.
“The pandemic was obviously hard but I had the chance to train on my home turf. ... It’s really cool because it’s such a small town and you kind of feel like you know everyone. It’s a small town. You go for a row with Austin (Hack, two-time Olympic rower from Old Lyme) and you’re exchanging secrets on the water because I went to Old Lyme. He’s pulling you under his wing.”
Paynter, a 2015 Old Lyme High School graduate, now joins the roll call of Rogers Lake success stories.
Hack, a 2010 Old Lyme grad, earned Olympic bids in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro and 2020 in Tokyo, each time finishing fourth as part of the men’s eight. He was joined in the eight in Tokyo by Liam Corrigan, a 2015 Old Lyme grad who was once the CAS-CIAC senior scholar-athlete alongside Paynter.
This year, the U.S. team heads to Prague in the Czech Republic for the World Rowing Championships, Sept. 18-25, with three former members of the Old Lyme-based Blood Street Sculls rowing organization in tow.
There is Corrigan (men’s eight); Madison native Dominique Williams, a graduate of Choate Rosemary Hall and Penn (men’s quadruple sculls); and Paynter.
The U.S. will have 25 boats competing in what will be the first world championship since 2019 due to COVID.
Paynter will have somewhat of a unique role in her first time making a senior national team. She is an alternate or “spare,” meaning she has had a huge undertaking, learning to be proficient in more than one discipline.
Paynter, who competed for the U.S. in quadruple sculls at the 2019 World Rowing Under-23 Championships, finishing 11th, was seventh in the single sculls at the 2022 National Selection Regatta I, which determined which U.S. rowers would make the trip this summer to the World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Paynter didn’t earn a spot on the team at that time. So she pivoted.
In what she referred to as a “last hurrah,” a last-ditch effort to make the team for the world championships, Paynter spent June training with Arion, an elite rowing program, and coach Eric Catalano in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Before a second selection camp was held, Paynter made sure she was versed in sculling and sweep rowing, as well.
Sculling includes single boats, doubles and quads, in which rowers maneuver two oars, one in each hand. Sweep rowers control just one oar on a specific side of the boat. Sweep rowing can include pairs, fours and eights.
Paynter, focused on sculling previously in the summer, made the U.S. national team as the port sweep spare. She is one of six spares in all and could fill in any of the sweep events on the left side of the boat.
“Everyone at Arion who was there was trying to make that second selection,” Paynter said in a telephone interview this week from Princeton, New Jersey. “We worked in fours, quads, every boat class, pairs, singles, the eight, every opportunity (Catalano) could give us, which is really hard to do. Usually you pick one (sculling or sweeping) and stick with it.
“It was the best chance to achieve the dream. It was really exciting, something I never anticipated being possible. I’ve been sculling the last three years. I was in the quad for the U23 national team. Usually, once you pick, you pick, you’re slotted in that zone.”
Paynter, who is 5-foot-11, explained that sculling is extremely symmetrical, with an oar on each side. Sweeping — the foundation of college rowing, which is conducted mainly in eights — involves more of a twisting motion to one side.
“I decided to try my shot at a sweep boat,” Paynter said. “I didn’t make the sculling side. I couldn’t move a pair fast enough to go on the trip and race a pair at the World Cup. I just kind of hopped into it. It went as well as I hoped. I gave it my best.”
Paynter, 25, got her introduction to the sport when she was 11 in the Old Lyme Rowing Association’s Learn to Row program. She jokes that the instructors, including Old Lyme High grad Caitlin O’Neil, tricked her into thinking rowing was fun.
“The squad of high schoolers that ran the camp were so fun. It struck me as a friend group that loved doing this. They tricked me. It’s such a difficult sport,” Paynter said.
Paynter, who also played girls’ soccer and basketball at the high school level, led Old Lyme’s rowing team to Connecticut Public Schools Rowing Championship titles as a junior and senior and the Wildcats won a gold medal at the 2015 National Schools’ Championship Regatta.
Collegiately, she won the Spirit of Princeton Award as a senior and was part of the second varsity eight which won the Ivy League championship, earning her second team All-Ivy League honors. She was a psychology major while also receiving certificates from the African American Studies department and the Teacher Preparation Program.
She always dreamed of being an Olympian in rowing but said she feels like there’s a difference between dreaming and taking the steps to actually make that dream into a reality.
Paynter’s coach for the U23 world championships, fellow Princeton alum, former national champion and Olympian Kate Bertko, might have been the one to push Paynter to the next level.
“By my senior year of college I was dropping time in my erg. I felt like I was mastering something,” Paynter said. “Kate Bertko was probably the most influential in me going on to do elite rowing.
“She said ’You could be that person. I think you could really make it,’” Paynter said. “I don’t remember her exact words but oh, my gosh, yes, I think that was the moment. It became a goal instead of a dream. When a coach that you trust says they believe you can do it ... until that, you have so much more self-doubt.”
Paynter had been sweeping for seven-plus weeks at camps and regattas this summer and then she had to wait as the final decisions were made as to who would join the U.S. team in Prague.
She was on her way to Small World Coffee in Princeton to pick up her favorite cold brew coffee when she got a text.
“Congratulations. You can stay.”
“Nothing I could even screen shot,” Paynter said with a laugh of the somewhat cryptic note.
“You dream of that moment. It’s definitely surreal. I find myself just thinking of different versions of former me and all the people along the way that were linked to former me. It’s an unbelievably long list, even if they’ve filled different roles, whether they brought you joy on one day, whether they inspired you by how much faster they were than you.”
Paynter leaves along with the U.S. team for Prague on Sept. 11. The goal for her is to be able to adapt.
“Pretty much the name of the game is to be ready for anything,” she said. “You never know what can happen, what makes the most sense. This is my first senior team so I don’t know what routine or normal is.
“You just have to be super, super adaptable to whatever the day brings.”
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.