North Arlington rower Mendoza competes on national level

Gary Mendoza was born in Ecuador and moved to the United States, first Sayreville and then North Arlington, when he was 14 years old. Like so many other aspiring young athletes in Ecuador, Mendoza was first a soccer player.

After all, it’s what everyone did in Ecuador. Playing soccer is a way of life, a tradition passed on through the ages.

“I liked soccer,” Mendoza said. “I basically played for fun. I was in the marching band in school in Ecuador.”

But when Mendoza was a freshman at North Arlington High School a little more than three years ago, Mendoza was introduced to a totally new sport – crew.

“I went for a tryout and I really liked it a lot,” Mendoza said. “I liked the atmosphere of the team, the energy that came from the team. I thought the feeling that you get when you’re on the water is like nothing else. It caught my attention and I really wanted to do it. I just loved the feeling of being out on the water.”

Mendoza said that he experienced other sports, but nothing like what he felt when rowing the waters of the Passaic River.

“I just felt like I was doing something positive with my life,” Mendoza said. “I didn’t know a single thing about the sport. But once I tried it, I kept coming back. I enjoyed it more and more every time I kept coming back.”

When Mendoza was younger, he was a little on the heavy side.

“I was about 5-foot-4 and I weighed about 190 pounds,” Mendoza said. “My grandmother is a very good cook. I wasn’t on the physical side and rowing acquires a lot of physical work.”

So to get in top physical condition as a rower, Mendoza took to the ergometer (ERG for short), a machine that best simulates the motion required of a rower.

“The first time I was on the machine, I never experienced anything like it,” Mendoza said. “I really didn’t know what I was doing. I needed to do it in order to get better. It was a physical challenge, but it was building up my strength, my endurance. It was interesting. It wasn’t like being on the water. I just kept learning more about the sport.”

Mendoza knew one thing right away.

“I wanted to be the best that I could be,” Mendoza said. “I saw people who were fitter than I was and were more physical than me. It’s not for everyone. I saw a lot of people just quit. It wasn’t for them. I figured that maybe I could do better than them, so I pushed myself. I just started to feel better about myself. I was really inspired.”

Mendoza quickly found out that he worked himself into excellent physical condition to be a solid rower.

When Mendoza joined the crew team at North Arlington High School, the program was still in the infant stages. Fabian Cortez helped to form the North Arlington program back in 2013, so when Mendoza joined in 2016, the Vikings’ program was still developing. So Mendoza was just beginning like many others on the team.

“I improved a lot during the course of the season,” Mendoza said. “Being on the water was so totally different than being on the ERG.”

Especially since in the early stages, Mendoza was in a boat with three other rowers and a coxswain, the coach in the boat who barks out instructions so the others all row in unison. Just one little mistake, one little slipup could be disastrous.

“We had to be able to row as one,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said that his close friend Juan Mejia was on the same boat with him, so that certainly helped with Mendoza’s development in the sport.

“Juan and I had been competing with each other,” Mendoza said. “That has helped me a lot learn more about it. We’re always trying to get better. I think since my freshman year, I’ve improved a lot.”

Mendoza went from the Vikings’ novice four to the mid-weight four, but then there was a dilemma.

“The guys who were in my boat didn’t come back,” Mendoza said. “It basically left me without a boat.”

With no other option, Mendoza had to become a competitor in a single skull.

“I thought I would get into another four on the team, but then my coach (Cortez) asked me if I wanted to try a single,” Mendoza said. “It was a totally different feeling with a different motion and a different mentality. I was a little fearful that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. The boat is so small. It was scary at first. I was worried if I was going to flip.”

But Mendoza got the hang of rowing alone.

“It required a lot of patience,” Mendoza said. “I kept on rowing and kept on trying. I found the technique necessary to be successful. And you know what? I never flipped once.”

Mendoza became so proficient as a single rower that he rapidly worked his way up the ranks and in the season that just ended, Mendoza finished second overall in New Jersey and qualified for the United States National High School Rowing Championships, which were held last month on Dillon Lake in Nashport, Ohio.

And for his efforts, Mendoza has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week, the final honoree for the 2018-2019 local scholastic sports season.

The Observer will be presenting its annual Male and Female Athletes of the Year in the coming weeks.

Mendoza knew that the pressure was on this season, because as a senior, this was his last chance to qualify for the nationals. Only the top two from each state earned a trip to Ohio. However, Mendoza’s journey to the national races was at his own expense.

“It was all new to me,” Mendoza said. “The water on the lake was very rough. The weather was not ideal. It was very windy and the temperatures were cold. The competition was very tough. It was a very close race.”

The course was 1,500 meters, so it was a battle of endurance as well as speed. Mendoza finished fourth in his heat.

Mendoza was the lone single competitor from the Passaic River boathouse that made the trip to Ohio. His boat was shipped to Ohio with the Ridgewood High School team. Mendoza went to Ohio with his parents.

Mendoza is hopeful to continue his rowing career in college. He has yet to decide where he is headed to school.

“I’ve applied to some schools that have rowing programs,” Mendoza said. “My plans are to continue rowing in college. Maybe I’ll have some luck.”

Needless to say, the kid from Ecuador has found a different sport than most, one that he hopes to be paddling along the Passaic for many years to come.




North Arlington senior rower Gary Mendoza recently finished second in the state in the single skulls, qualifying for the United States High School National Rowing Championships, where he placed fourth in his heat. Photo courtesy of Felix Leon



Learn more about the writer ...

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”