Grand Haven’s Alex Vander Meulen’s athletic resume from his days at Grand Haven High School was pretty much a blank sheet.
So when the 2009 GHHS graduate decided to join the University of Michigan’s men’s rowing team as a freshman, he did so with motivation to prove he belonged.
“I went in with a chip on my shoulder,” Vander Meulen said, a recent computer science graduate from the university. “Most of the guys on the team are walk-ons. It’s not that popular of a sport in high school, so most guys, like myself, have no experience coming in. But at the end of the year, when I was doing just as well as some of the big football-type guys or others who had experience in the sport, it really gave me a lot of confidence. It was a really cool thing for myself.”
Vander Meulen, the son of Dean and Lisa Vander Meulen, had a natural advantage to succeed. He stands 6-foot-8, which is ideal for rowing because tall competitors are able to generate more leverage with their body, and thus, more power.
Vander Meulen said he was urged to join the team by several at the school, including another former Grand Haven graduate, Riley Hall, who is a year older than Vander Meulen and also enjoyed a strong rowing career at U-M.
Although he was the second-to-last person to avoid cuts from the team as a freshman, U-M coach Greg Hartsuff told Vander Meulen he wanted to give him a chance to prove himself.
It proved to be a wise decision.
Vander Meulen, who weighs just 198 pounds, admits he had very little muscle mass prior to joining the rowing team. But through intense training — which he says lasts yearlong — and early-morning practices on the Argo Pond in Ann Arbor as soon as it unthaws — he began showing considerable improvement in the sport, which helped him clinch a spot on the Wolverines’ First Novice 8 team and earn the award for most improved novice rower.
Vander Meulen ascended the ranks on the team, as he joined the Second Varsity 8 team during the spring season of his sophomore year and continued to compete with that squad through his junior campaign.
“My junior year, we were very competitive with the other schools’ second varsity teams that we faced. We were almost undefeated,” Vander Meuelen said.
Vander Meulen’s Second Varsity 8 boat took first-place honors at the Mid-America Collegiate Rowing Association’s regatta that season, as well as top finishes at the Dad Vails Regatta in Philadelphia and the American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) Regatta in Georgia.
Vander Meulen also experienced the thrill that season of being a member of the varsity four that competed in the Prince Albert Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta — one of the world’s most prestigious and oldest regattas held on the River Thames in England.
Vander Meulen said the essential trait of success in the sport is trust.
“As far as a team sports goes, there’s really none other like rowing, because you really come to rely on and trust the other guys in the boat with you," he said. "Of course you have to match each other’s strokes, but you each have to share the same intensity.
“With rowing, because you’re facing backwards, it’s much easier psychologically, because you can see (the action) happen. If the other teams start to pick it up to try to draw even, it means you can, too, but it takes a unified effort from the other crew.”
Vander Meulen played a key role in that unified effort with the Wolverines’ Varsity 8 team this past season, and they enjoyed considerable success. Despite having to replace six of eight seniors from the boat, they finished second in the Collegiate 8 event at the Head of Charles Regatta in Boston in October; placed third in Vander Meulen’s back yard at the Lubber’s Cup on Spring Lake on April 13; and went out with a bang in their season finale at the ACRA Championships.
In the Collegiate 8 Finals, Vander Meulen’s said U-M’s coxswain — the member who sits in the stern facing the bow, steers the boat and coordinates the power and rhythm of the rowers — gave the rest of crew their status.
“There was a boat near us and he yells, ‘They don’t know what to do!’” Vander Meulen said. “We were just in a great rhythm that day.
“It was amazing to go across the finish line. It’s been in the back of my mind all year. It was a huge weight off my shoulders to accomplish it.”
Now working at a software company in Ann Arbor, Vander Meulen said he might volunteer as a coach for U-M next season. There’s also a rowing club in Ann Arbor that could keep in active in the sport.
Looking back, Vander Meulen said he has no regrets of all the long hours of training or the late fall practices where sprays of water would eventually form ice crystals on his splash jackets.
“You go through so much together that you become close friends,” Vander Meulen said of his U-M teammates. “That will last forever.”