Five years after rather reluctantly trying the sport, Nolan Parks hasn’t stopped rowing. He will compete at the world junior championships in August and row for Northeastern University in Boston starting this fall.
As Nolan Parks headed into summer break back when he was a seventh grader, his dad, Josh, wanted to fill his son’s time with activities. The previous summer had featured “too much screen time,” Parks’ dad said.
Parks’ dad signed his son up for rowing because Mount Baker Crew was near where he lived in Seattle. But Parks wasn’t interested.
“Kids that age can be, like, ‘I don’t want to try anything I’ve never done before,’ ” Parks’ dad said. “He didn’t have any friends who did it. It was a very foreign idea to him.”
Parks’ dad made him give it a try for the summer. He said his son didn’t have to continue if he didn’t want to. But now, five years later, Parks hasn’t stopped rowing. He chose to give up other sports to exclusively focus on rowing; the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences graduate capitalized on his tall frame and natural ability.
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“I realized, through other people’s reactions, that I was doing some sort of impressive stuff,” Parks said. “And it motivated me to keep doing it.”
Parks found his way onto the 53-person roster of men and women heading to the 2017 World Rowing Junior Championships, which begin Aug. 2, in Trakai, Lithuania. Four other rowers from the Seattle area — Jenna Hardman, Riley Lynch, Aparajita Chauhan and Chase Barrows — will also compete. Parks and Barrows will be in the same boat as part of the men’s eight.
Erik Strand, who coaches Parks at Mount Baker Crew, said the sport’s presence seems to be constantly growing in this city that doesn’t lack access to water. Parks’ team practices on Lake Washington, usually south of I-90 near Seward Park.
And it helps that the University of Washington has a long tradition of rowing success, most recently with the women’s team winning the 2017 NCAA title.
“Having the University of Washington here, I think there’s definitely a rowing heritage in the Seattle area,” Strand said. “It’s a big part of the city’s history.”
That’s how Parks’ dad became familiar with the sport. He grew up in Seattle, and his dad was an economics professor at the university. Josh never rowed, but he respected the sport.
His son had height to his advantage. By age 13, Nolan was 6 feet tall, so his dad thought the sport might be a good fit. Now 6-4, Parks will attend Northeastern University in Boston this fall on a rowing scholarship.
“He showed up as a 14-, 15-year-old, looking like a 20-year-old because he was just really big and really fit,” said Strand, who has coached Parks for the last four years. “Right from the start of his career, (he) made boats go fast.”
Still, Parks had to master the right technique and he was able to pick up on that fairly quickly after beginning the sport when he was 13. And having a high pain tolerance, Strand said, is helpful.
After Parks’ first race, his dad remembers how his son responded when asked how the race went.
“Dad, it sucked, but I love it,” Parks said.
“To me, that sums it up,” Parks’ dad said. “That’s the attitude you need to be a rower.”
The World Junior Championships will be the first time Parks has raced internationally. Already, he can feel a difference in training. He and U.S. teammates are preparing to face teams that represent entire countries rather than just other clubs. That provides additional motivation, Parks said.
Parks made the team after attending a three-week selection camp in San Diego. He hasn’t been home since he left Seattle for the camp in June, and the U.S. team left for Lithuania straight from California.
Having strength and power helps get the rowers to the selection camp, Strand said. But once they are there, they also have to prove their ability to row well and in sync with others.
The day Parks found out he had made the team, his dad was at the Sounders’ friendly against Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt at CenturyLink Field. He knew his son had time trials that morning, and if he did well, he would make the team.
Parks’ dad kept checking his phone, waiting for a text from his son. He restrained himself from being the one to begin the conversation by asking how it went.
Just as Parks’ dad and some of his friends made it to their seats, the text from his son had arrived. He made the team.
“I’ve never seen him go after something that he wanted that badly,” Parks’ dad said. “The whole time, I’d ask him (to) try to get a sense about was he nervous, how was he handling the stress, and it was amazing. I don’t know where this guy is getting this. It’s not from me because I would be a wreck in this situation.”
Parks is excited to start rowing in college, and he hasn’t thought much about eventually making an Olympic team. But he has compared himself with Olympians when they were his age, and they seemed to have been in similar spots, he said. Still, that’s a long way off.
What Parks does know about his future is this: He wants to live by the water so he can row around from time to time.
The sport he was once forced to try has become a piece of his life he can’t leave behind because “when rowing is going really well,” Parks said, “there’s nothing else I’ve done that even compares to it.”