Rowers capture bonus positions on U.S. teams Meghan Sarbanis and Renee Hykel won two events at the U.S. Rowing National Championships.

Posted: July 27, 2003

PENNSAUKEN — The coffee mug was big and blue and stained brown from so much use.

"That was my Linus blanket," Meghan Sarbanis said.

It fell from the car's roof and shattered yesterday when Sarbanis and Renee Hykel raced out of Wawa's parking lot en route to the U.S. Rowing National Championships.

The pair, both residents of Philadelphia's Art Museum area, laughed rather than cried over the spilled coffee. And then they proceeded to row the race of their lives.

Rowing for Undine Barge Club, Sarbanis, 26, and Hykel, 24, won the elite lightweight women's pair event on the Cooper River. Clocking 7 minutes, 22.84 seconds on the 2,000-meter course, they also qualified for the world championships in Milan, Italy, from Aug. 24 to 26.

Seven hours later they claimed gold again in the senior lightweight women's double in 7:23.15.

Ironically, Sarbanis and Hykel were training mostly for the double - sculling requires the use of two oars and sweeping requires one oar per person. The pair, a sweep event, wasn't on their original agenda. But they said they couldn't pass up a chance to advance to the world championships.

"It's surreal," Hykel said.

Added Sarbinis: "It hasn't sunk in yet."

Undine coach Lyons Bradley said he hasn't met two world-class rowers like Sarbanis and Hykel in 29 years of rowing.

"It's tough to describe," Bradley said. "They are happy-go-lucky. They are serious, but they have a great time. It's a wonderful combination. They are very unique. I've never run into this situation before."

Before they entered college - Sarbanis at Villanova and Hykel at St. Joseph's - neither woman had ever rowed. Sarbanis was a figure skater when she was younger and played field hockey and ran cross-country and track at Pinkerton Academy in New Hampshire.

Hykel, a 1997 graduate of Haverford High, wasn't quite that active.

"I was a slacker," she said, laughing. "I walked the mile in gym class."

But she did start weight training before she graduated from Haverford, and was looking for a new challenge when she entered St. Joseph's. She found it with rowing.

"I wanted to do something," she said.

With her background in track, Sarbanis intended to run at Villanova. But the Wildcats, national cross-country champions from 1989 to 1994, weren't looking for walk-ons.

Sarbanis tried out for crew and found she was an even better rower than runner. Her ergometer score of 7:05.3 is currently one of the world's best for a lightweight.

"Meghan is very strong and very fit, and she's brought Renee up to her level," Bradley said.

Although they row on the Schuylkill twice a day - at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. - the sport doesn't dominate their lives. Sarbanis is studying occupational therapy at Temple, while Hykel plans to attend Widener's law school.

They'll be traveling and competing much of August. On Wednesday, they leave for the Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic, Aug. 1-18. Then it's a home for a bit before the world championships in Italy.

While Sarbanis no longer has her coffee mug, the pair have each other.

"She says I'm her hero," Sarbanis said. "She's mine."

Oars and ends: Crescent's Glenn Ochal, who will be a senior at Roman Catholic, won the title in the junior men's single in 7:23.89. Rodrigo Murillo of Peru was the event's top finisher in 7:14.88. Ochal and 2003 Roman graduate Al Monte also took the men's intermediate double. . . . Vesper placed first and second in the men's senior four, while Malta finished first and second in the men's elite double. . . . National titles were also earned by Undine's Jo Grudziak in the lightweight women's intermediate single, and Penn AC in the intermediate men's eight and lightweight men's senior four.

Contact suburban staff writer Ira Josephs at 610-313-8002 or ijosephs@phillynews.com.

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