University of Pittsburgh

alumni hall

Glide Time

Written by Niki Kapsambelis

Mark Oleksiuk (left) and Louise-Marie Gillis

Mark Oleksiuk (left) and Louise-Marie Gillis

The lake water churned, and frothy white caps rippled everywhere. Sitting on the unforgiving contour of a tiny bench in a narrow boat on a vast Southern lake, the novice rower was about to discover the frightening side of a newly embraced sport.

As a freshman member of the University of Pittsburgh’s crew team, Mark Oleksiuk had trained largely on dry land before taking a spring break trip to Camp Bob Cooper in Summerton, S.C. In a sleek scull on Lake Marion, far from shore, he and a few rookie crewmates were working on their technique when a surprise storm rolled in.

“I was in a boat of eight guys who knew nothing about rowing except the few basics we learned over the winter,” says Oleksiuk. Suddenly, one of them started yelling, Row for your life, get to the dock! “Talk about team-building,” says the Pitt student wryly.

It was a fitting initiation for a demanding sport, one that requires discipline, dedication, and sometimes quick courage. In four years of rowing for Pitt, Oleksiuk—who is captain of the varsity men’s crew team—has been caught in the wake of large commercial barges in Pittsburgh’s three rivers. He’s faced harsh winds that combine with currents to turn a training session into a Herculean feat. In the icy months of winter, he has endured the cold without gloves for as long as possible—gloves are a sign of weakness in rowing.

This year, his hard work paid off. He and fellow Pitt crew member Louise-Marie Gillis, a fifth-year pharmacy student, are the recipients of the Anita J. Angus Endowed Alumni Association Athletic Scholarship, which provides each of them with $3,000 to support their education. Established through a bequest, this scholarship is awarded each year to Pitt students who are Pennsylvania residents and participate in intercollegiate athletics, specifically football, basketball, or crew.

“It means a lot to me,” Oleksiuk says of the award. “Not only is it helping me tremendously to make it through my last year of school, but it’s also satisfying that people recognize the effort. I’m very thankful to receive any recognition, because it’s a sport where people are really not doing it for the glory.”

Oleksiuk, a fifth-year senior studying economics and statistics, followed in his brother’s footsteps by rowing for Pitt. When he arrived as a freshman in the fall of 2004, his brother, John Paul Oleksiuk (A&S ’05, SIS ’05), was a fifth-year senior and serving as the team’s novice rowing coach, a role his younger brother has now assumed.

Cowinner Gillis is a Montreal native who spent her high school years in a suburb of Philadelphia watching crew teams navigate the Schuylkill River out of the fabled Boathouse Row. She first took up the sport as a Pitt freshman. Since then, she has spent four years rowing for Pitt and has her sights set on one day competing in the Olympics.

“I was ecstatic,” Gillis says of the award. “I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot academically, but the crew team was something I wanted to achieve physically. I wasn’t the fastest or strongest, but we’ve all strived to better ourselves.”

To prepare for her future, Gillis is working with Pitt Head Coach Daniel Grancea, a former member of the Romanian national team. It was Grancea who nominated Gillis and Oleksiuk for the award. The coach is helping Gillis organize her education and her training to meet the regimens of a four-year Olympic cycle.

She believes the strict regimen only serves to make her a stronger student by underscoring the importance of discipline. “It helps a lot of the freshmen to stay out of trouble. Your first year of college can be pretty crazy,” she says.

Maybe not as crazy as getting caught in a nasty squall on a narrow boat—but Gillis and Oleksiuk agree that their Pitt experiences are preparing them to handle the challenges ahead, even the unexpected ones.