You never know what might happen on your first trip to a sprint race starting line, and the freshman eight from St. Benedict's got the full experience on Sunday at the Bill Braxton Memorial Regatta on Mercer Lake.
In their race, the second flight of the afternoon frosh racing, a troubled alignment process was followed by even more troubled first 100 meters as a number of crews careened across lane lines, precipitating a full restart some time later. Accompanied by the requisite shouting, fear of disqualification, and more, it was the stuff of memorable first races for the ages.
Where all that might rattle some young crews, for Lucas Guillen of the St. Benedict's boys freshman eight, it burned off the nerves and offered another shot at getting it right.
"I was really nervous, especially after what happened," Guillen said after the race, his first ever; the team has attended five regattas this fall, so all of the other crew members had at least done a head race.
"But then I guess all my nerves went at that point, and then when we started the second time doing it, I felt relieved, and I did better than I expected."
Crew member Anthony Cruz concurred; Cruz rowed in middle school for three years after his older brother got involved in the sport at St. Benedict's.
"Because we had to restart, it really got to my head at first, but when they told us we would have another chance, I told myself that I wanted to do well," Cruz recalled. "I felt for our first actual sprinting race, it felt really good, and I felt like we all wanted the outcome that we got."
Coxswain Sergio Almeida's view from the coxswain seat supported his teammates' assessment.
"The start was different from the head races, and this was much bigger than the other regattas we've been in," Almeida said. "I'm a novice coxswain, so as novices, we screw up, we make mistakes. There were a lot of boats and the marshals yelling and telling us where to go; then trying to get into the lanes was complicated, and then that first try and that big mistake was really something. But then, the second time that we raced, it felt better. It felt like a normal race after the second time."
Cruz noted that the sprint format made the experience more intense.
"For the majority of our races, we raced for time," he said, referring to the head races they have rowed thus far. "For this race, they had us all line up, and just seeing your competition made it more intense."
Once underway (and kudos to the refs for making sure everyone got to race rather than simply learning a hard lesson and going home), the crew members joined the ranks of other budding rowers learning about rowing most by sitting in between the gunwales and pulling. The Newark-based St. Benedict's program is only in its fifth year of existence, but posted a pair of solid thirds in the HS novice boys' eight events, led by head coach Craig White, a St. Benedict's and William and Mary alum who has returned to the school to teach Algebra and coach rowing; he is assisted by coach Hannah Stafford, who also teaches Spanish at the school.
(Learn more about the school in this 60 Minutes report: The Resurrection of St. Benedict's.)
"The sport is very intense, and it's underestimated," crew member Naseem Ross-Stansburry. "Looking at the sport from the outside, you would probably think that it's pretty easy. But the work that these guys put in, it's just crazy, and it takes a lot."
"This race was very intense," crew member Cory Cespedes said. "I think we all did very well as a team and as brothers, and I'm proud of them, whether we came in third or placed whatever we did. I'm proud of all of you guys."
"Honestly, this race really surprised me, because at the beginning, I expected a full race, but then that incident that happened when we started, that surprised me," Adrian Morales added. "The fact that we all recovered very quickly and efficiently was really good."
After this weekend, crew members have a choice to keep working out with the crew over the winter, or participate in another sport.
"Our coach said we have two options; you can wrestle, swim, or fence, or you work out with the rowing team," crew member Richard Ohia said. "That will keep us in shape," he added, while his team members noted that they all plan to return for the spring season.
Like Cruz, crew member Seun Eisape followed his older brother into the sport.
"My brother also went to this high school, and I came here in eighth grade when my brother rowed with Anthony's brothers," Eisape said. "He was just talking about how much he liked it, and he went to college and he rows. So when I first came to St. Benedict's last year, I joined and liked it, and I liked the coach, so I stayed with him."
Coming from a school where the motto is "Whatever hurts my brother hurts me," rowing seems to be a good fit.
"I like rowing because there's no Messi ; it's all about the group," crew member Claudio Ulloa said. "There's no special rower; it's about the team; that's why I like it."