By John Knebels
Sports Columnist

Seven years ago, Merion Mercy Academy instituted a rowing program. Seven years later, the all-girls school completed an international conquest.

During a weeklong excursion at the prestigious Henley Regatta in England, the Golden Bears stunned the competition in four consecutive races over a 48-hour period. Their crowning achievement occurred June 19, when their junior four boat captured the Groton School Challenge Cup, finishing the 1,500-meter journey along the River Thames in only five minutes, 48 seconds.

It was the first time an American high school garnered a Groton Cup gold medal since 2003, and although Merion’s large contingent was unable to take the Cup home with them, the school name will be forever emblazoned alongside the other schools from around the world that seized similar glory. {{more}}

“I was unable to see their immediate reaction,” said junior coxswain Maddi Ratfield. “But I know what they were feeling and why a lot of us were very emotional. It was incredible what we had just done.”

Along with Ratfield as guide, the four boat consisted of Sara Romano, Amanda Lorei, Emily Buongiorno and Elissa Jensen. The former two will attend Columbia University and Stanford University, respectively, while the latter two will return for their final year at Merion.

For Romano, a Waldron Academy graduate and a member of Havertown’s Annunciation B.V.M. Parish, finishing her high school career as a Henley champion defies logic.

“In the fall we were joking about going to Henley’s and winning a gold medal,” Romano said. “We would drop hints to (coach Mike Brown). Then we lost at Stotes (Stotesbury Regatta on the Schuylkill River), but we rebounded to win nationals the following week. After the race, he told us we were going to Henley, and we went nuts.”

Once in England, the Merion five – all of whom were chaperoned by at least one parent – tried to soak in the environment’s rich tradition while focusing on their rowing goals. On June 18, Merion won two races to reach the quarterfinals; the next day, the Golden Bears defeated a boat from Northern Ireland by a relatively wide margin to reach the finals.

With boisterous family members shouting their encouragement, along with camaraderie-boosting rooting from the high school that Merion had defeated in the quarterfinals, Merion throttled England’s Lady Eleanor Holles School by two and a half boat lengths to finish off an incredible accomplishment.

“About 500 meters in, I kind of knew there was no way we were going to lose,” Ratfield said. “When we were getting really close, Sara grabbed my hand. It was unreal.”

Romano wasn’t convinced until there were about 200 meters left.

“That was the first time I was finally able to put a smile on my face,” Romano said. “Coach had warned us that the British are known for making great finishes, but we were too far ahead for that to happen.”

Romano was in her third year of rowing. She credited the sport with helping “every phase” of her life. The commitment to a daily grind of oft-early and long practices, she said, requires time management, better eating and sleeping habits, attention to detail, and a firm understanding of what it means to be part of a team.

Jensen agreed. Even if Merion had not been able to leave such a lasting impression, Jensen said the six-hour jaunt to England would have been worth the effort it took for the Golden Bears to compete with some of the world’s best boats because of the communal effect it had on her school and many families.

She said she almost had goose bumps from the start. “We were on the starting line and the announcer announced us as ‘Merion Mercy Academy, United States of America,” Jensen said. “That really showed us how far we have come.”