Virginia lands Bittman
Stella Bittman’s passion for rowing runs deep.
The Grade 12 student at Notre Dame was initially a basketball player but switched her focus over to rowing when she entered Grade 9.
“I really loved the intensity of rowing. It is a sport that continuously pushes you to be a better version of yourself and teaches you so many life lessons about perseverance and how to move past struggles,” the 17-year-old Welland resident said Tuesday, after signing to attend NCAA Division 1 Virginia on a rowing scholarship. “I fell in love with that aspect of it. I also love the team environment and how to go far with your team you really need to be compatible with one another and trust your crewmates.”
Her love of rowing is also in her genes. Her mother, Leslie Sardella, competed for the University of Louisville, and her father, Greg Bittman, was a member of the St. Catharines Rowing Club.
“I always grew up hearing their stories of rowing which really excited me. I decided to start my rowing career in Grade 7 but I wasn’t too serious about it then because I was still playing other sports. In Grade 9 when I started high school, I really got into it and that’s when I focused mainly on rowing and started rowing competitively.”
Her first foray into high performance rowing came in Grade 9 when she competed in a double at the Head of the Charles.
“For a junior to be able to go and compete at the level I did, especially for a small club like us, was very rare. We were underdogs in the race and we placed eighth overall.”
This year, she returned the Head of the Charles and placed third in the double with partner Malarie Jones. That performance was another highlight in what was a spectacular competitive season for Bittman.
Her 2022 included: topping the under-17 division at the Canadian Indoor Rowing Championships; winning gold medals at the Canadian Secondary School Rowing Association championships in the double and quad; representing Canada at the under-19 world championships and placing 11th in the quad; and, teaming with Teagan Orth, Georgia Greenwood, Maya Meschkuleit, Hailey Mercuri, Fiona Elliott, Jones, Zoe Durcak and Ceilidh MacDonald to win the women’s eight at the 2022 Canada Summer Games in Niagara.
Those accomplishments earned her plenty of interest from American schools and she ended up making official visits to Princeton and Virginia.
“I loved Princeton, I loved their environment and everything about it but it wasn’t really in the cards for me as far as scholarship opportunities went. Everything about Princeton that I loved, Virginia also had.”
She was blown away when she visited Virginia.
“Their crew environment was so strong and I could really tell that all the girls loved each other and they were hungry for a national championship. Their coach Kevin (Sauer) really wants to win a national championship in these next few years and seeing that environment, mindset and hunger, I know that I am going to be in a crew that is really willing to work achieve greatness. That is what I want.”
There wasn’t any one thing that made her choose Virginia.
“Everything about the school felt right. I connected with all the girls really well. I had some great conversations with them and the coaches. I wasn’t even attending school there yet but I felt like I had already fallen into the rhythm of doing what they did.”
She has yet to decide what major she will pursue but is leaning towards political science.
Her athletic goals are team-oriented.
“I want to win an NCAA championship. That is what I want for my rowing career.”
Signing with Virginia hasn’t lessened her motivation to finish her high school career with a bang.
“Now I am even more motivated to get better and go in super strong. I want to be in Virginia’s 1V (No. 1 varsity boat) and I’m wishfully thinking that I want to be in there in my first year because they have a solid group of girls. I want to be good.”
She also wants to continue to get better.
“It is staying consistent. That is the big one. If I can thread together a lot of consistent training weeks, I can improve greatly and that will be a big kicker moving into the spring.”
Bittman has been training at the Ontario NextGen Performance Centre in Welland since the summer of her Grade 9 year but she continues to be heavily involved with the Notre Dame Rowing Club.
“I have made sure that I am also training with my club because being with a team is a huge part of the sport. What I love about winning is winning with a crew,” Bittman said. “My personal belief is that winning with a crew is so much better than winning on your own. They are my family and those are the girls that I want to win with.”
Notre Dame head Rhiannon Zahorchak has coached Bittman since she was in Grade 7 and noticed her drive right away.
“With Stella, it is definitely her determination,” Zahorchak said. “It doesn’t matter what she is put through. She shows her strength and applies it well to the sport.”