MAAC 40th Anniversary Salute to Manhattan Women’s Rowing

by Pete Janny & Colleen E. McNamara, Sports Editor & Managing Editor & Staff Writer

The Manhattan College women’s rowing team is one of five teams on campus who have had to find ways to stay active in light of having their fall season cancelled due to the coronavirus. For a team that has improved each year since gaining varsity status in 2015, how they handle the void of not being able to compete this semester could prove critical in determining the future direction of the program. 

But in a time filled with great challenges, the program was reminded to reflect on all they have achieved in their short history when five rowers — both present and former –were honored for their individual contributions to the program. The recognition came as part of a series of tributes that have been announced by the MAAC Conference, in honor of the league’s 40th anniversary this year. 

Although the program’s history is still underdeveloped, they have been led by a core of standout rowers up to this point. Those who were chosen for this distinction include third-year head coach Alex Canale, Kate Sexton 20’, Shannon Forty 20’, Elizabeth McCabe ‘20, Ella O’Brien 21’, and Emily Hughes 22’. 

As the program’s longest tenured coach and the man most responsible for the strides they have taken, Canale was selected as the representative from the coaching category. 

The hard work of his rowers has paid off, both in and out of the water. His teams have won a number of races since he was appointed head coach, generating hope for more success in future seasons. He has coached three rowers — McCabe, Forty, O’Brien — who became the first All-MAAC performers in program history. For the 2019-2020 school year, his team compiled a cumulative 3.63 GPA, good for fourth best out of the 19 varsity athletic programs at the school. At the moment, Canale and his rowers are focused on finding ways to come away from this pandemic a stronger team.

“We are going to use this pause to reevaluate some little things that will make a big difference, focusing on tradition and culture that will last for decades,” Canale said. 

One unique element to coaching rowing on the collegiate level is the learning curve some of his rowers have to face coming in without any previous experience with the sport. Canale very much so embraces the opportunity to positively impact the lives of his rowers, regardless of the skill level they arrive with.

“In the sport of rowing thirty to fifty percent of teams are made up of walk-ons who have the physical capacity to want to push themselves and they turn out to be great rowers,” Canale said. “To have to teach fifty percent of the team the sport, while motivating the remaining fifty percent who are recruited athletes is really tricky. Would I trade that for anything? No. It’s exciting watching these girls learn about themselves.”

Elizabeth McCabe (upper left), Kate Sexton (upper middle), Shannon Forty (upper right), Alex Canale (bottom left), and, from left to right, Ella O’Brien and Emily Hughes (bottom right) have all been recognized by the MAAC Conference in a special tribute inspired by the conference’s 40th anniversary this year.

In fact, one of the best rowers the program has seen started her career at Manhattan without any foundation with the sport.

That individual is Kate Sexton. Her graduation this past May marked the end to an inspiring career. Prior to college, her experiences as an athlete were mostly tied to soccer. However, after learning more about the opportunities that come with being on the rowing team at Manhattan, Sexton chose to step out of her comfort zone to pursue something bigger than herself. 

The rest is history. 

“Kate walked on the team and seemed as though she was always trying to prove herself, but before you even realized it the other girls on the team were trying to keep up with her,” Canale said. “She was the definition of hard work in my time at Manhattan, on and off the water.”

Sexton departed from the program with three MAAC All-Academic selections, and truly solidified her legacy this past year after being tabbed the 2019-2020 Team MVP as well as the recipient of the “Manhattan female Iron Jasper”, an annual award given to the college’s most determined female student-athlete.

“Walking onto the women’s rowing team at Manhattan changed my entire life,” Sexton said. “It was the most challenging, rewarding, and fulfilling privilege I could have ever experienced. The ability to be on a college athletic team and be a part of something bigger than myself was something I do not take for granted. The team at Manhattan is made up of immensely disciplined, strong, talented, and bright young women and the time I was able to spend on the team will be something that I never forget.”

Elizabeth McCabe’s readiness for college rowing was apparent from the moment she stepped on campus in 2016. As an experienced rower already, McCabe was looking for the best fit possible for herself, both academically and athletically. Finding a school with growing Division 1 sports was a requisite in McCabe’s search, and her eventual commitment to Manhattan continued a family tradition on her grandfather’s side of attending the school. 

“Being on the team was more than rewarding,” McCabe said. “I found friends for life on that team, I have become more physically and mentally stronger than I knew I could be, and I left there knowing I made an impact.”

Over her four years, McCabe garnered All-MAAC Second Team honors in 2019 and MAAC All-Academic honors three times. She will be remembered for her leadership intangibles just as much as for her performances in the water.

“Elizabeth was everywhere you needed her to be as far as helping the program grow,” Canale said. “She was valuable to me in helping to learn the program and school. She’s a great listener which is something that’s hard to find.”

Shannon Forty rounds out the trio of seniors who were recognized. Hailing from Westford, Massachusetts, Forty left her positive imprint on the program with her good attitude and special dedication to the team. She embodied the academic and competitive ideals of the program in earning MAAC All-Academic honors three times and a 2018 All-MAAC second team nod. 

“She’s smart, passionate, and very consistent, which is super important,” Canale said of Forty. “Having her around allowed us to keep the hiccups to remain at bay. After being moved down to 2V, as the team got strong and faster, Shannon continued to be consistent and driven all the while getting faster.”

Ella O’Brien only needed three seasons to validate her position in this elite class of rowers. Like Sexton, she also joined the team as a walk-on and made the most of the opportunity. O’Brien has built up an impressive resume that includes two MAAC All-Academic honors and an All-MAAC Second Team showing in 2019 — the latter of which was solidified thanks to an impressive season in the spring of her sophomore year.

“Ella is an infectiously positive person,” Canale said. “Even as a walk on, she saw the best in everything, excited no matter where you put her and was pushing hard the entire time and leading by example the entire time. She’s been a leader from the moment she stepped on the team.”

The youngest rower from the group of honorees is Emily Hughes. Currently a junior, Hughes has played a big role on the team over her first two years at Manhattan. She has been a dependable member of the 1V8+ boat ever since she arrived, mostly anchoring the seventh seat for a boat that has racked up a good amount of wins since she joined. She was also named a MAAC All-Academic Team honoree for the 2019-2020 school year.

“From the start the team had a really competitive atmosphere where all the girls pushed themselves, which led me to push myself and eventually landed me in the seventh seat,” Hughes said. “I’m really lucky to be in this position and I can’t say enough good things about the boat.”

As one of his early commits from back during the fall recruiting period in 2017, Hughes has lived up to Canale’s expectations of her. She is looking to take her skills to the next level as an upperclassman.

“Emily came in right on day one, found her seat and worked hard to stay there,” Canale said. “I am really glad that we found Emily, she’s been excellent for us and I’m sure she’ll continue to be.”

Now that three of the five rowers honored by the MAAC have graduated, there will be more room for others to make a name for themselves once competition resumes. But just because some of the program’s finest performers are now alums doesn’t mean the program will forget about their legacies. The onset of the pandemic in March may have prevented the seniors from getting a proper send-off for their careers, but this year’s team knows exactly who they will be competing for when the time comes. 

“I have the support of the past seniors,” Hughes said. “Me and the rest of the team are motivated to push even harder this spring season in honor of them.”