By AJ Mazzolini
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Inside the Westerville North High School cafeteria, students milled around booths and tables looking for after-school clubs to join. Club representatives handed out fliers with information on their organizations and activities.

That's where Matt Chase first met Chris Yeager more than six years ago.

Yeager was a freshman at the school and Chase was looking for kids to join the Westerville Crew, the rowing club he started in 1995. Yeager was tall, and stocky if not overweight, an excellent starting point for a rower, Chase thought.

Chase's intuition proved accurate. Recruitment to the University of California followed Yeager's successful four years with the high-school club. His newest rowing venture is representing the United States in the Under-23 world rowing championships this week in Amsterdam.

Yeager, a 6-foot-6 soon-to-be senior at California, will man the No. 2 seat for the United States' eight-man boat when action kicks off at the four-day championship on Thursday. The 2,000-meter race will be held at Amsterdam's Bosbaan rowing course.
The world championships are Yeager's first experience in international competition, but the 21-year-old has plenty of wins under his belt. He was the only sophomore in a boat that won a varsity national championship in 2010.

"I feel like rowing at Cal is a pretty intense program," Yeager said. "It has helped me get prepared mentally and physically for this. But this is a great opportunity to get up and compete on a different stage."

Yeager is a much different person now than the high-school freshman Chase recruited to the Westerville Crew, a team that includes students from many north Columbus high schools. After a million or more oar strokes, pounds of muscle have replaced adolescent flab.

"Scores of kids lose 20 to 50 pounds rowing, just like Chris," Chase said. "There was an athlete underneath, and he didn't even know it."

If it weren't for rowing, Yeager's college career would likely have gone in a very different direction.

Rowing crew opened whole new hallways full of doors for him. As high school was winding down, big-name rowing universities were offering scholarships to get Yeager in their boats.

Ivy League schools came calling, including Harvard and Yale - where crew is captain among athletics - as did West Coast powerhouses Washington and California.

"Rowing has taken him somewhere else he wouldn't have gotten to go," said Chris' father, Chuck, a

Columbus firefighter. "I mean, just traveling around the country to row has been great. And then this."

But the chance to compete in U.S.-branded gear, the NCAA national championship and the scholarship offers to Division I schools almost didn't happen. When Yeager first started out on the water, practicing with Chase's novice team on Hoover Reservoir northeast of Columbus, he almost quit.

"I was a little skeptical at first, having never tried it before," said Yeager, who is studying geography at California. "We weren't having too much success. I was almost ready to walk off and be done.

"The next season, I kept putting in the meters every single day. I realized I was a good fit for it, and by the end of my junior year, it just started coming easier for me."

His high-school coach remembers the transformation similarly.

"One day he said to me, 'I really like this crew stuff,'" Chase said. "That was after two years of rowing."

Now closing in on seven years of rowing experience, Yeager is nearing the end of his time in school. If the championships in Amsterdam go well, the rower said, maybe he has a long-term future in the sport.

"It would be nice to go further," Yeager said. "I'll have to see what comes my way. I could always try going for the national team. I haven't really thought much about it yet."

His focus is still on the task at hand, he said, and facing the world's best.

amazzolini@dispatch.com
 


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