Stragyte learning to lead Gophers

Vilma Stragyte is taking on a leadership role, whether she likes it or not.

David McCoy

Minnesota rowing coach Wendy Davis has a difficult task ahead of her.

Davis’ first priority in the early stages of this season will be to put back together her First Varsity Eight shell that lost five of its nine members from last year, including three-time All-American Melissa Roche.

With more than half of the first shell rowers new to their positions, Davis will depend on last year’s returners to take on new leadership roles.

For one returning rower, the path to her new role has been longer than the one taken by her teammates.

Last year was a difficult one for junior Vilma Stragyte. After joining the team midway through the season, she struggled as all new recruits with the familiar difficulties associated with getting back into shape and adapting to a new program, Davis said.

On top of that, the Kaunas, Lithuania, native experienced culture shock and struggled all year with a thick language barrier.

Davis said she has high expectations for Stragyte and has noticed several improvements.

“This year, Vilma is doing much better in the physiology test,” Davis said. “She has a better steady pace and a better overall score.”

Davis said Stragyte’s technique is also coming around.

“When someone isn’t fit, their technique is the first thing to go,” Davis said. “She is holding her technique through the whole practice this year.”

Davis said she has also noticed a development in her leadership skills.

Stragyte acknowledges this, but not without a great deal of hesitancy.

She prefers a different type of leadership role.

“I don’t want to be a leader,” Stragyte said. “I’m afraid of leading. I want to be an example for the other girls to see and to follow – a silent leader.”

Stragyte, a former member of the Lithuania Junior National Team, came to Minnesota in January after a year out of competitive rowing.

As a 19-year-old, she was forced to leave the Lithuania Junior National Team, because she was too old to compete.

But before she came to Minnesota, she injured her anterior cruciate ligament playing basketball and needed surgery.

Stragyte spent the next year in physical therapy, rehabilitating her knee. She finally began rowing again in the summer of 2003 and joined Minnesota that winter.

Stragyte said she came to Minnesota because she was drawn to Davis’ coaching style.

“I liked her as a coach and as a (person),” Stragyte said. “I liked the way she talked about the University, her tactics and her team with passion.”

When Stragyte arrived in Minnesota, Davis said, she noticed the rower’s potential, but realized that she needed some work as well.

“When she came here, she was very strong,” Davis said, “but her fitness was nonexistent. You could see her potential, but it was tough.”

Davis said she now knows that all the hard work and struggles have paid off.

“This year, we see a Vilma who is coming into her own,” Davis said. “And I’m loving what I’m seeing.”