The town of Yarmouth has produced an abundance of standout girls’ soccer and lacrosse players over the years.
Despite joining her friends in those endeavors growing up, Ali Totta is not one of them.
What Totta has become, however, is one of the premier rowers in her age group, a status she’s attained due a special relationship with her father and a personal devotion to her craft.
Dr. Mike Totta was a high jumper at Cornell, but switched to rowing as a senior after a series of injuries. He was so good at it (he was in the JV boat that won at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Nationals in 1980) that he delayed medical school to chase his dream of qualifying for the Olympics, but he was the last man cut from of the 4-man quadruple scull. Totta remains a competitive rower, taking part in Masters events.
He also introduced his daughter to rowing in middle school, at a time when Ali admits she was looking for a sport to call her own.
“I played soccer and lacrosse when I was younger, but I didn’t have a particularly great ability on the field,” said Ali, who has been a key member of Yarmouth’s perennial powerhouse girls’ Nordic ski team in high school. “I loved being out on the water. My Dad loved it so much and I could tell he loved to teach me to row. That was pretty cool. I picked it up fast. It appealed to me to have something different in my awkward middle school years. I was really tall and wasn’t so good on the field and this was something I could do.”
“Ali started rowing with me when she was going into seventh grade,” said Dr. Totta. “She just went out a few times in a recreational boat during that summer. It was surprising that right away she developed the coordination to handle the sculls well. There is something in rowing called ‘catching a crab,’ which means losing control of your scull and having it get stuck in the water. It can be a dramatic event and even cause a boat to flip or to eject the rower. Interestingly, unlike most novices, Ali never suffered that embarrassment. She seemed to learn the technique quickly.”
Ali completely immersed herself in the sport, rowing either with her Dad or by herself. It wasn’t long until she showed that was committed to doing whatever it took to succeed and she emerged as one of the top rowers in the Northeast.
“The first race we rowed was in Brunswick, a Maine Rowing Association race in a double,” Dr. Totta said. “(Ali) did a great job and we beat everybody. Even college men from Bowdoin. I was immediately impressed by her ability to maintain focus on the task and sustain an intense physical effort.
“In the fall of 2007, we raced in our first race out of Maine, the Green Mountain Head, a three-mile race near Putney, Vt. It absolutely poured rain the whole time. We were wet, dirty, and cold, but Ali never complained. To top it off, we got stuck in the mud trying to leave. I was sure she was going to quit after that.”
Instead, Ali kept going and by virtue of her intense devotion to training from April through October on the Androscoggin River in Brunswick and exposure to elite camps in Connecticut, Maine, New York and Vermont, only got better. She’s competed all over New England and even in Canada. Last July, Ali won the Independence Day Regatta in Philadelphia. Three months later, in her career highlight to date, she won the female youth singles scull medal at the storied Head of the Charles race in Boston.
“(Winning the Head of the Charles) was my proudest moment,” Ali said.
Dr. Totta has also won at the Head of the Charles, giving the duo a unique accomplishment.
“I’m not absolutely sure, but Ali and I might be one of the first father-daughter tandem to win both of our events at the Head in a single year,” Dr. Totta said. “We also raced in the mixed double (male-female) for the third time last year, covering the course third-fastest of all competitors. Unfortunately, the race is age handicapped, so a 17-year old in the boat just kills your handicap.”
While both Tottas enjoy their successes, they truly appreciate the quality time that rowing has provided.
“(Rowing has) created a really strong relationship with my Dad, which is something I feel very lucky that I have,” Ali said. “I give my Dad credit. I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for him.”
“Over the four-plus years we have raced, it’s been a remarkable pleasure to spend time with her more as her teammate than as her father,” said Dr. Totta. “Yeah, sure, we had a few ‘father/daughter’ moments, but mostly it has felt like we were teammates.”
Unlike her peers in team sports, Ali has spent a good chunk of her practice time alone. While she admits it can be difficult at times, but she’s stuck with it and it’s paid off.
“Sometimes it’s really hard to go out there and have the discipline when I’m alone,” Ali said. “My Dad usually practices with me, but if he can’t make it and I’ve had a lot of homework or am exhausted, it’s hard to mentally focus. When I race in a single, there’s no one else out there. It’s taught me self-motivation and perseverance. There are times when the conditions aren’t how you like them. It’s taught me how to deal with situations when I’m not comfortable. The hardest thing is having a bad race. Bad conditions are frustrating. You train so hard and look forward to a race. There’s nothing you can do, so you have to let that go. I’ve realized that I’m capable of doing things I wouldn’t expect.”
“Despite being alone, she’s done a great job training and racing in the single, rowing’s loneliest boat,” Dr. Totta added.
Ali is eager for her season to being, but she suffered a setback earlier this spring, breaking her elbow, which might keep her out of the water longer than hoped.
“I’ll be racing in May, hopefully,” Ali said. “I can’t wait to get on the water, but I’ll have to wait a little longer, unfortunately.”
She has a chance to qualify for the Junior National team, but her injury will make that a difficult achievement.
“Having cross-country skied all winter for the Yarmouth team and not having done the intense rowing training other girls around the country did, Ali would have been unlikely to qualify for the National team but would have had a chance,” Dr. Totta said. “Now? Not so likely. She’ll need to finish in the top two Americans in the Scholastic Rowing Association championships (held in New Jersey in May) or the top three at the U.S. Rowing Youth Nationals (in Tennessee in June) to qualify. It’s possible, but she’ll have to heal from the break very efficiently and have a good May training. Hopefully she can at least get back in good shape, get stronger and race well in the big summer races, the most important being the Canadian Henley Regatta in St Catherine’s, Ontario, the first week in August.”
Then, it’s her turn to go off to Cornell, where she’ll spend plenty of time in a boat, surrounded by teammates for a change.
“I’m so excited to be part of a team,” Ali said. “All the girls I go to camp with in the summer tell me I’m just going to love it. Sculling and competing in my single is unique for a high school rower. In college, it will be eights and fours predominantly. I look forward to it.”
Ali, who is an high honors student, co-president of Yarmouth’s Interact and Global Action clubs and is active in community service, will attend the Agriculture and Life Science School. She’s interested in environmental, nutritional and food science.
“I wanted to go to Cornell since middle school,” Ali said. “They have specific academic interests that appeal to me. I’ve been told it’s a great school. I first heard from them the winter of my junior year. I talked to them all through my junior spring. I met the coaches. It ended up working out, which is awesome. It’s a competitive program. Along the lines of Dartmouth. The top tier is (the University of Virginia), Cal and Brown. It’s a growing program. It’s on the rise.”
The rower that knows her best feels she can continue to evolve and impress.
“Ali has developed certain parts of her rowing stroke remarkably but still has plenty of room to improve and she’ll get that chance in college,” Dr. Totta added. “Cornell will be another great opportunity for her. I’ll be curious to see how she does with a full year of training with other young women as opposed to her old goat Dad. It will certainly be more motivating to have a big gang of other people like you to train with.
“Athletes who are capable of going fast in a single scull must have the highest level of technical sensitivity in the sport. That will help her when she starts rowing in 8-woman boats in college. Most high school kids in the US learn to row on machines or in 8-person boats and often never develop high levels of technical ‘boat moving’ sensitivity. Even though eights are fast boats requiring more power than the single, ultimately racing fast also demands technical skill. Ali’s challenge will be to develop her power a bit more. She’ll have the skill. The great thing about rowing is that it is a very fair sport. Savvy athletes who work smart and hard almost always become winners, so it’ll be up to Ali to decide how far she wants to go. She already has a great start.”
Like her father, Ali plans to enjoy rowing as a lifelong sport and stay competitive for years. Whatever happens this summer, at college or down the road, she’ll always appreciate what the sport has done for her.
“When I started, I never thought I’d become so attached to it,” Ali said. “I love what it’s taught me, not only on the water, but I think it’s changed my personality. It’s given me more confidence. It’s hard, but it’s fun. Rowing in Maine is hard with the weather, but it’s awesome. It’s so beautiful. It’s created my passion for the outdoors.
“There’s a lot ahead of me this spring that I’m excited for. It’s a common story for rowers. We’re the most awkward kids on the field and we get in a boat and things start to click.”
Make that two people who are grateful.
“The best part of it for me is that I’ve been able to share a passion for rowing with her,” Dr. Totta said. “To show her a little different side of her father beyond work and chores around the house. No matter what happens down the road, we’ll always be able to look back on the fun we’ve had over the past five years.”
Yarmouth’s Ali Totta takes part in the women’s club single race at last October’s Head of the Charles competition. Totta is one of the premier rowers in her age group and will compete at Cornell University next year.