Caroline Laurendeau positioned her shell on the start line under the bridge at the top of Lake Quinsigamond racecourse in Worcester, MA, and quietly gave instructions to the Holy Cross women's crew in the eight seats in front of her.
It was just a Friday afternoon practice; the opponent was another Holy Cross women's eight, and the piece was only half the distance they would race Saturday in a dual match against the University of Connecticut.
The fact that it was an intrasquad practice, and a course she has piloted countless times during her four years as a Holy Cross coxswain didn't appear to change Laurendeau's demeanor. She is all forms of serious when she is in her boat. Caroline - Carol to everyone close to her - is always serious when it comes to competing in her sport. Or any sport.
She does have a soft side, her smile and easy manner off the water and between pieces is a clear contrast to her business side. Both qualities blend to make her a valued teammate.
"She's a great teammate and a great coxswain," said head coach Patrick Diggins. "She jumps right into everything. She is there for everybody. She is everything we could ask for and there is nothing that holds her back."
Normally a coach wouldn't mention what could or could not hold a student athlete back. But that would not be recognizing the complete story about his senior coxswain. There are been holding-back factors to Laurendeau's life that have existed since the day she was born premature - 25 weeks - and weighting just under two pounds at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
It was a rough start, and she was later transferred to Boston Children's Hospital where she spent the first four months of her life. Her battles during those early months included multiple surgeries, including on her heart and eyes.
Then a nurse helping out in her Sudbury home noticed she had trouble putting her right foot down. Another doctor visit was followed by more challenging news. Caroline had Cerebral Palsy, a chronic and physically limiting development disorder that can sometimes result from premature birth.
More hospital and doctor time followed, and as she grew, she fought through it all with physical therapy as well as four leg surgeries to lengthen and stabilize her right leg.
But none of them would sideline Laurendeau.
She is familiar with the children's story "The Little Engine That Could," and does not shy away from the comparison, although a more fitting title for this particular kid would be the Little Engine that Refused To Quit.
"I've never really listened to the 'she can't do anything'," Laurendeau said before practice. "That isn’t me. I just work through it. Growing up, I may have been slower and weaker, but I was always playing, always involved with the other kids."
Laurendeau doesn't easily take full credit for her determined nature. She was raised the youngest of three athletic children of athletic parents, who while cautious, were encouraging. "It was just my upbringing.
"The doctors always warned my parents that I would struggle more, but my parents raised me to try what I wanted to. My mom was very cautious and nervous about how I was doing, but at the same time they always raised me to do everything I wanted to and if I needed to modify things, I would. I just always wanted to do what the other kids would."
So, she did. She danced with the other kids. And she swam, and played lacrosse and field hockey with the other kids.
Outwardly, she was all "Little Engine That Could." Inwardly - in her head - she was just a tiny bit frustrated. "I'm not saying it didn't take a toll on me," she said. "I was always in the lower levels, the slower one in the pack. There was definitely frustration."
Raising a child with a disability can be challenging as well as frightening for a parent. Laurie, her mom, traveled the distance from Sudbury to Boston two and three times a day when she was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children's. She had two other children at home, so back and forth was a necessity.
"It was heartbreaking to leave her there in the hospital," Laurie said. "But I felt even worse for the other parents. I had the joy of having brought two children home with me before. That was something I had that they had not experienced. I felt terrible for them."
After four months, after Laurie and her husband Jack had learned how to care for Caroline and keep her on the oxygen she needed to breath, they brought her home and set up a tiny neonatal ICU in the dining room.
Mom and daughter lived there and nurses were employed to help. Jack and Laurie did what they needed to do to support and raise Caroline through the early months and then through the CP diagnoses and the surgeries that followed.
It helped that Caroline was a fighter, but it was difficult watching nonetheless. Especially in those little moments when she knew that her daughter was trying to keep things to herself. "I would go up to her bedroom and find all these little baggies of water from when she as icing her legs by herself at night."
Harder were those moments when it was all kind of public, like when she watched Caroline sit the bench during field hockey games because she could not keep up. "Coaches want to win," Laurie said. "I understand that." And then in her sophomore year in high school, Caroline found a home in the coxswain seat of a rowing shell.
"I was always trying to find a sport that I loved and follow in my siblings' footsteps. My sister played lacrosse, so I did that in middle school and then the beginning of high school."
Field hockey and lacrosse can be a rough and tumble kinds of activities, especially for someone with CP. "It all kind of took a wear and tear effect on my body. Over the years, I suffered pulled muscles, and it was taking a toll on me. I knew if I progressed on in high school, it would just get more demanding, so I needed to find something where I could still be competitive.
"There was a classmate who rowed and I watched her, and then she told me about the role of the coxswain and how they were small and I could use that to my advantage. So I looked into it and then found CRI (Community Rowing, Inc.) and went there and fell in love with it.
"My very first day I stepped into the coxswain seat. I fooled around a bit in a single, but I'm a coxswain." Like everything else she did, Laurendaeu pursued rowing no matter what it took. And her family supported her.
Until Caroline got a driver's license, Mom drove the distance from Sudbury to Boston daily for practice. "It was a pain, going back and forth with all that traffic," Laurie said. "But she was so happy to have found something. It was worth the sacrifice."
Rowing was not without difficulty. Her condition left her more fragile and she suffered a spinal fracture from coxing in the front end of a coxed four. Also, there was the difference in the leg and strength of her legs and how it caused an eight to veer to the right off the start.
(She discovered that issue at Holy Cross, but a special bubble wrap triangle wedged between her leg and the hull of the shell corrected that.)
When her high school years were winding down, there was "no way I was ready to let go of rowing," she said, and she began investigating college teams.
Her dad played football at Holy Cross, her brother played baseball there and her sister was also a student there. "It's been such a family place for us. Growing up, we went to football games and I remember seeing my Dad connect with old alumni and how they were still connected, and watching my brother play baseball and having such a great team experience.
"It was something I wanted, and in my senior year of high school I approached Holy Cross and put myself out there." She came to the Worcester campus on an official visit and then happily accepted an offer to attend and be part of the team. Neither Holy Cross or Laurendeau regretted the decision.
"This team is everything to me," she said. "It's definitely made my college experience what it is. We're so close. We're family, especially my class. We've grown up together."
"My husband and I are just so, so proud of her," Laurie said. "She is so independent and she has this opportunity to be part of this team. She had 20 instant friends when she walked onto the campus of Holy Cross. They are all so close and she and the seniors have been through four great years together.
"We're just thrilled for her."