By Ryan Hopper | @ryan_hopper31
Braden Porterfield earned bronze for Team USA at the 2023 U23 World Rowing Championships. The competition took place from July 19 through 23 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Porterfield, a rising junior at Northeastern University, was among the 34 college athletes across six boats chosen to compete for the United States at the U23 level.
His journey to Bulgaria began in 8th grade when Porterfield, inspired by his father Mike Porterfield, who represented the U.S. in five world championships, started rowing to have a sport to play in the spring athletic season when he attended T.C. Williams High School now known as Alexandria City High School.
A versatile athlete listed at 6-foot-6-inches and 220 pounds, it’s no surprise that he played football and basketball in the fall and winter seasons, respectively. In football, Porterfield was an All-District left tackle in 2019 and helped T.C. win its first regional play-off game in 29 years. He also set hard screens on the hardwood, helping the Titans win the 2019-2020 Gunston District Championship.
Playing other sports influenced Porterfield’s development both mentally and physically. Basketball, football and rowing all require strength from legs and core to power movement. All three sports require stamina and mental fortitude to be at peak performance for as much of the game or race as possible.
In the summer of 2020, before the start of his senior year of high school in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Porterfield decided that he would focus exclusively on crew. He loved winning Gunston District and Occoquan Regional playoff games with the foot- ball and basketball teams, but he knew it was time to follow in his father’s footsteps. So, when his father’s alma
mater, Northeastern, offered Porterfield a partial athletic scholarship, it seemed like an obvious decision.
Mike Porterfield had not only been a Northeastern Athletic Hall of Fame rower him- self but also an accomplished coach. He coached two American women to a Bronze Medal in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Following graduation, Porterfield went to the US Rowing U19 camp in San Diego, California, to try out for the U19 National Team. He was among 70 to 80 male athletes vying for only 16 spots.
“I had no clue what I was doing,” Porterfield said.
Despite guidance from his father, Porterfield did not make the U19 National Team that summer. He entered college hungry to prove USRowing wrong, and he did just that with a strong freshman season at Northeastern in its varsity eight boat.
Last summer, Porterfield tried out for the U23 National Team and made considerable progress. He was one of the youngest athletes at the Boston camp and made it to the last round of cuts, ultimately falling just short of making the team as a 19-year-old.
The two-a-day practices beginning at 5 a.m. on the frigid Charles River and his grueling off-season weight training programs began to pay off this year. In the 2023 spring season, his boat made the grand final at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta, the pinnacle of the domestic season.
Northeastern would eventually finish 6th, ahead of a highly touted crew from traditional powerhouse and local rival Harvard. The Harvard team was packed full of international rowers, some of whom Porterfield will likely come up against in Bulgaria.
Porterfield built on that gradual progress this summer, earning his spot on the U23 team after a good showing at the three-week US men’s row- ing camp at Dartmouth College.
“I’m about to go represent the U.S. in Bulgaria – that’s crazy,” Porterfield said, almost in a state of disbelief.
He will sit in the 3rd seat of the men’s four-man boat with a coxswain, a heavy boat that Porterfield and his teammates will have to leverage all of their strength and determination to move down the 2,000- meter course.
The coxswain serves the role of the captain or coach of the boat, keeping it on course during the race and the rowers
in sync. Sammy Houdaigui, of McClean, Virginia, is the cox- swain of Braden’s boat and one of only two other athletes se- lected from the Washington, D.C. area.
“Every single year, I see more and more guys come out of the DMV area,” Porter- field said, referring to the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region. “A lot of the Fairfax County Public Schools offer rowing, and they row out of the Occoquan River.”
Many colleges with prominent rowing programs are prohibitively expensive for local athletes, either because they are private institutions or be- cause they are public but out of state. Intercollegiate men’s rowing remains largely dominated by East Coast private schools, most notably from the prestigious Ivy League. The only common exceptions are the West Coast powerhouses of California-Berkeley and Washington, which finished 1st and 2nd this year at the National Championships in a field otherwise dominated by East Coast private institutions.
Porterfield contends that rowing is a great opportunity for local kids aspiring to attend a university they otherwise may not get admitted into at a reduced tuition rate.
“To be truthfully honest, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into Northeastern if I didn’t have rowing,” Porterfield said, referring to Northeastern and its 18.4% acceptance rate. “There’s just so many opportunities in the rowing world to get scholarships for both men and women.”
Porterfield has set his sights on making the Paris 2024 Olympic Games going forward, which is an aspirational target, but by no means an outlandish one.
“Paris next year is the goal, even if it’s not super attainable,” Porterfield said. “The summer leading up to the Olympic cycle is most important.”
If, however, Paris 2024 is out of reach, Porterfield intends to do everything possible to make the 2028 Olympics games on home soil in Los Angeles.
“Something that is super, super attainable and is in my reach is definitely LA in 2028,” Porterfield said. “That’s my angle for sure.”
If Porterfield were to continue rowing beyond his time as a student-athlete and break into the U.S. National team, he will need to continue to meticulously manage his time. He described his routine as “eat, sleep, row, repeat” – and that may not significantly change after his expected college graduation in 2025.
As there are no professional contracts after collegiate rowing, many rowers try and find jobs in their career fields that are near rowing clubs. Many of these clubs, located primarily on the east and west coasts, offer the necessary training facilities to keep elite rowers in shape to compete, as many rowers are often restricted financially in their pursuit of Olympic glory.
Some major cities with prominent rowing clubs include Washington D.C.; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Diego, California; Long Beach, California; the San Francisco Bay Area and Cambridge, Massachusetts, giving Olympic hopefuls a chance to make their dreams come true.
Another path Porterfield is pondering is crossing the pond to the United Kingdom for graduate school, with what’s considered the best combination of collegiate rowing and academia outside of the U.S. and a long history of rowing dominance on the international stage. Since the 2000 Athens games, Great Britain’s rowers have dwarfed Team USA in medal count 15-4, including five golds in a row between 2000 and 2016 in the men’s four without a coxswain.
In the UK, Porterfield could go up against top competition while furthering his education. He could also potentially compete in the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta, which would earn him a ‘Red Box,’ one of the most desired accolades in the sport after an Olympic medal.
Porterfield is seeking to join the ranks of Alexandri- ans and recent ACHS gradu- ates to represent Team USA at the Olympics. These include long jumper Tynita Butts- Townsend, boxer Troy Isley – who has a 9-0 professional record – and two-time world champion and Tokyo 2021 bronze medalist Noah Lyles, who runs the 200-meter sprint.
Time will tell if Porterfield can make it to Paris or Los An- geles in 2024 and 2028, respectively, but to him, it’s about more than that.
“I’d love to see Alexandria City back on top winning state titles,” Porterfield said. “That’s my dream, I want to make the high school program better and just try to set up more opportunities.”