St. Charles teen rows to world record

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Jack Kirtley rows every day after school. (WLS)

Every day after school, Jack Kirtley rows.
"It's a great escape for me," he said of the sport that takes over his afternoons again and again.

"Rowing is all about hard work," he added before his daily practice with the St. Charles Rowing Club in Batavia.
The 18-year-old high school senior loves the challenge; and a few weeks ago his commitment paid off big time when the teen set a world record.

Earlier this month, the club's head coach, Chris Meldrum, told Kirtley he would be rowing a "2k," meaning 2,000 meters on the rowing machine as fast as you can go.

"It gives me a measure of are they getting faster? Are they getting slower? Can they emotionally work through that particular piece," explained Meldrum of the sprint that her team will race in frequently this spring.

For rowers like Kirtley, this can be a painful exercise.

"In your mind you're just constantly thinking 'wow, I could fake an injury, I could pretend to faint. This is awful. I really want to stop,'" he said of the mindset mid-sprint.

Kirtley had been training for this 2k all of winter break. He knew it was coming-and remember, it was only a practice run. But he was nervous.

"I probably only slept for about two hours that night... because I hadn't fully mentally prepared myself," he recalled.

The intensity made sense once Kirtley mentioned what was on his mind heading into the sprint.

"I was looking at my phone at the American records for the 2k on slides and I was like, 'yeah, I could probably beat that this time,'" he explained.

So Kirtley added an extra obstacle by putting the rowing "erg," as the machine's called, on slides.

"That will mimic rowing on the water more than just having the erg still," he explained.

"It's a question of balance and focus and technique," added Meldrum, who was skeptical of Kirtley's plan to sprint on slides.

On 2k day, Kirtley hesitated too.

"Ok, this was a horrible idea, this probably won't go well," he said to himself, remembering that Coach Meldrum had upped the ante. At seven feet tall, Kirtley towers over his coach-but make no mistake, she's the boss. So she meant serious business when she declared that if Kirtley didn't set a new personal record with this 2k run, "He's getting back on the erg and pulling another 2k," she said without blinking.

Despite the risk, something compelled Jack Kirtley to stick with his decision and before long, "everything started to click," he said. Kirtley zoned in on the screen, watching numbers tick by as he rowed at a feverish rate. The machine heaved air with each pull. In the final minutes, realizing he was on pace to set the American record, "I was just going as fast as I possibly could."

Barely more than six minutes later, at 06:14.10 after the sprint began, Jack Kirtley reached 2,000 meters. He set the American record for 17-18-year-old males in the sliding category, as monitored by Concept 2, the company that makes this machine.

"I didn't really think it was super cool at first because I was just trying to focus on not faint," Kirtley remembered.

But there was another shock still to come. The next day, he received a text message saying "'Omg you broke the world record.' And then I kind of just sat there staring at my phone and iPad.... I was just like 'wow.'"

Kirtley pulled nearly 200 times to reach that goal. It's all the more impressive considering Kirtley started rowing only 16 months ago. His coach says Kirtley's work ethic and skill make him a role model. Teammates- and anyone under seven feet-look up to him.

"No is not an option, failure is not an option. He's just one of those kids," Meldrum said.

Next year, Kirtley heads to the University of Washington to row for the Huskies, one of the nation's top programs. He'll go to college not thinking too much about a world record from 2018.

"It's definitely cool but at the same time I always remind myself you still have to keep on pushing," Kirtley said, as he keeps pulling toward the next record, which he might be thinking about right now.
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