Junior Lauren Larrabee remembers the exact time and place she rediscovered her passion for swimming. It was early on a warm day, Sept. 6, 2013 to be exact, and Larrabee, who had spent her whole life around pools, found herself at Taylor Pool while visiting Occidental College.
She was watching the end of the Occidental swim team’s practice when she realized something: she needed to swim.
There was just one problem—Larrabee was no longer a swimmer.
Well, she was no longer a competitive swimmer, having hung up her goggles a year earlier and dedicated herself to the Capital Crew Rowing program as a coxswain.
It was on that day that Larrabee decided to get back in the water.
Four months later, after returning to training in the pool, Larrabee was posting the best times of her life.
It was a surprise for everyone, given Larrabee’s background, perhaps it shouldn’t have been. After all, Larrabee was all but born to swim.
Both of her parents swam for Sacramento State University, and her older brother Tyler, ’09, swam varsity at Colorado College.
Larrabee started swimmingwhen she was just 4 years old, progressing enough at age 8 that she outgrew her local Gold River swim club and moved up to the “big leagues,” so to speak: Spare Time Aquatics Sacramento (STAS).
At STAS Larrabee began swimming two hours every day, attending morning practices three times a week and even attending Saturday conditioning. And the competitive swim circuit is notorious for grueling meets that span Friday, Saturday and Sunday several times a month.
Her times im-proved as she got older, but her enthusiasm waned. Swimming became a task to accomplish, like homework.
Moving to the competitive team had been the right decision because she was faster than the kids on her rec team, but she felt like she was losing interest.
“It was kind of a given that I was going to swim,” Larrabee said.
“I never really said, ‘I’m going to swim for myself, because I like this.’ Every day I dreaded going to practice.”
So after her freshman year of high school, Larrabee started thinking of other options.
She had a cousin who rowed crew for Harvard, and her best friend was a rower.
“I figured I wouldn’t be able to do many other sports because of my size, and crew looked fun,” Larrabee said.
But first, she had to convince her parents.
At first, her mother Pam said she was hesitant on the idea of Lauren dropping swimming.
“To be honest, it was really hard on me,” Pam Larrabee said.
“She’s a very talented swimmer and she’d devoted so many years to perfecting her strokes and her race strategy and I felt really sad that she was going to possibly be giving all that up.”
Larrabee wrote a letter to her parents explaining the reasons why she wanted to switch sports, which helped sway both parents.
One of her biggest supporters, surprisingly, was her brother.
“She’d been swimming her whole life, so I completely understand where she was coming from,” Tyler Larrabee said.
The last person Lauren had to talk to was her coach of eight years, Kirk Johansen.
“He was really open and nicer than I ever could have expected,” Larrabee said. “He thought crew was a good in-between sport, and lots of swimmers do crew in the off season to keep in shape.”
And Larrabee was happy. She started out as a rower but was told she probably wouldn’t excel in it, because of her size, so she switched to coxswain, steering the boat, giving out the stroke orders and urging her teammates down the stretch.
She was one of the top coxswains for the novice division, and her best race was when her women’s novice “A” boat 4+ placed second in the grand final at the Southwest Junior Regional Championship, May 2013.
“It’s indescribable how excited and nervous and all these emotions you can feel at the same time during a race,” Larrabee said. “Even talking about it now gives me goose bumps.”
Also, Larrabee experienced working together with a group to achieve a goal: something she didn’t know much about before because of how individualized swimming is.
However, crew was also extremely challenging because the workouts and coaching styles were completely different.
Instead of emphasizing upper-body strength, crew focused on leg strength.
Larrabee did a lot of weightlifting and pushups at swim practice but had to switch to running with crew. Breathing is different in the pool and out, so Larrabee had trouble transitioning.
While she had been able to get individual help on her swimming, she had a harder time in rowing because coaches were more focused on the boat as a whole, Larrabee said.
When Larrabee moved up to JV at the beginning of this year, right away she knew something was off.
Even though she had been one of the top novice coxswains, she was still less experienced than most of the coxswains on junior varsity. She wasn’t getting as much time on the water, and she wasn’t getting anything from the workouts.
Then Larrabee went to Occidental, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, to visit her boyfriend, Morgan Bennett-Smith, ’13.
While she was there, she stopped at the pool and saw the swim team.
“They were just finishing up with practice, and right at that moment I thought, ‘I miss swimming so much, and I want to swim in college more than anything,’” Larrabee said.
Thus, Larrabee returned to STAS swimming in January, more than a year after she had quit.
“I think the mental break as well as the physical break really was good for her,” Pam Larrabee said.
“Although there were so many elements about being a coxswain that she loved, she really missed pushing her body physically.”
Larrabee has swum in only two races since being back, but she’s already improved her 50-meter freestyle by one second. Larrabee believes that the biggest reason for her success is her new mentality towards the sport.
“I’m swimming for myself, which is totally different from anything I’ve done before,” she said.
And so it is that Larrabee is up three times a week at 4:30 a.m. She eats breakfast in the car and drives 15 minutes to Rio del Oro Racquet Club, where she practices for an hour and a half. Then it’s off to eight hours of school. And after that, she returns to the pool for two more hours of practice.
And she’s never been happier.