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Despite an injury this season, Helena Laursen is a team leader. After this season, she'll head off to New Zealand for a gap year with National Outdoor Leadership School.

Conestoga High School senior Helena Laursen "is probably, technically, the best rower on the team," says her coach.

by Aaron Carter
Published June 5, 2024, 1:59 p.m. ET

There was a time, years ago, when Helena Laursen sat in her mother’s car, fraught with nerves, questioning if she could even take the first steps into a world that eventually changed her life.

“She said, ‘I don’t know if I can go, Mom,’ ” Amy Laursen recalled in a telephone interview. “ ‘I don’t know if I can go.’ ”

Back then, Laursen was a quiet, dainty freshman who resembled a ballerina.

Now she’s an exceptional senior rower for Conestoga Crew Club. Laursen and her quad boat just wrapped up the weekend at the USRowing Youth National Championships in Sarasota, Fla., making it to the final where they finished sixth.

“My kid is a different kid than she was headed into Conestoga crew,” Amy Laursen said. “I think crew may help kids channel what may have innately been there but was untapped.

“I had a dancer who loved to be on stage … and these coaches have transformed her into an athlete, who, typical of any crew athlete, is known for her grit and perseverance.”

This season, Laursen, now a team captain, used those attributes to overcome a nagging injury that threatened to derail her senior season. She will call upon them again for a three-month wilderness excursion in New Zealand during her gap year before college.

First steps

Laursen and her mother were in the parking lot of Wilson Farm Park in Wayne when the sight of other kids who already seemed familiar with each other nearly paralyzed her with fear.

It likely didn’t help that the COVID-19 pandemic had for years limited Laursen’s socialization to just her two younger sisters.

Still, Amy Laursen encouraged her daughter to choose an extracurricular activity that would help “find her people” in what was Conestoga’s largest class in history.

Laursen had grown up a dancer, studying jazz, contemporary, ballet, and hip-hop styles, but treated dance as more of a hobby.

“She was very small, probably 90 pounds, and she looked like a little ballerina,” said Conestoga coach Goldia Kiteck, a member of the 2018 University of California women’s national championship rowing team.

“Just watching her transform from this small little pipsqueak into this force on the water has been great.”

Conestoga High School senior Helena Laursen danced growing up before trying crew.

Today, Laursen’s skills as the “bow,” the position closest to the front of the boat, set her apart.

“She is probably, technically, the best rower on the team,” Kiteck said.

That, in addition to her “boat feel,” which Kiteck explained as the ability to “understand the water, how it works with the boat, and how to use it to increase boat speed,” make Laursen special.

“Seat races” are an inexact science, Kiteck explained, but changing the position of a single rower during multiple practice races across multiple boats can give an indication of a rower’s value.

Before long, Laursen was a standout as a sophomore.

“She was still small, but we’d do seat races, and she’d win them all,” Kiteck said.

Course plotters

Laursen credits leaders at Conestoga such as Savanna Jacovini, now a junior on the Boston University rowing team, with creating an environment that helped her flourish.

“It’s definitely helped me with leadership,” Laursen said. “I really had no experience being a leader before crew. It gives people the space to grow into themselves.”

She seems to have created something similar. Kiteck explained that poor team morale can be as difficult to row against as a strong current.

By her junior season, teammates had labeled Laursen as a “team mom,” which, coupled with her “boat feel,” made her boats a force.

For example, Laursen’s skill set has helped Conestoga boats enter turns even with the competition only to emerge in front because Laursen judged the angles more efficiently and got the most from her teammates.

“I am the oldest daughter, so I feel like I definitely had a little bossiness in the first place,” Laursen joked.

Her senior season, however, left little to laugh about after a shoulder muscle strain threatened to end her high school career.

Laursen missed several months while doing physical therapy in the mornings before school. Still, she never missed a practice, even if she wasn’t allowed on the water.

“This year is a testament to what crew has taught her,” Amy Laursen said. “Crew is hard. Your hands are raw and calloused all the time. And you’re getting up early when everyone else is staying out to party. This year, the injury was really hard, but I think the resilience she earned the prior three years is what got her through.”

Despite dealing with an injury this season, Helena Laursen never missed a practice, even if she couldn't be on the water.

Next chapter

After four years of hard work on the water, Laursen chose a gap year instead of accepting the two academic scholarships she was offered.

Her mother and father, Steen, who is from Denmark, encouraged her to take time off before college.

“I feel like I’m a hard worker,” Laursen said, “and I’ve been working really hard for the last four years, and I feel like I need a break.”

As you may have guessed, a “break” for a person who enjoys the grueling nature of crew is no ordinary respite.

Laursen was accepted to the National Outdoor Leadership School, where she will spend three months roughing it in New Zealand. There she hopes to continue her development as a leader and then is considering a college overseas.

From left, Conestoga rowers Guin Reaume, Eva Ong, Charlotte Hagerman, and Helena Laursen practice.

And to think, she almost didn’t get out of the car years ago.

“That feels like so long ago,” Amy Laursen said. “... Fast-forward, and Helena is taking a gap year and going to New Zealand. That’s something I could never imagine my Helena would have done before crew.

“To me, the most important thing is Conestoga crew is about the team. She just loves all the people who gave her this great experience and have given her such a great gift.”

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