Nick DiAntoni had an idea that his youth men's eight had at least one messed up start in their system. Call it a coaches' sixth-sense. "I just felt it. So, in practice I told them to go and get it out of their system."
That would have been too easy. His Newport Beach, CA-based NAC Jr Rowing crew decided the best place to practice a hiccup at the start would be the 2017 Youth National Championship final at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, FL, Sunday.
And so they did. Just after each crew name was polled, one of the athletes thought he saw the start platform light go on, and pulled an impulse short stroke.
"The starter called each crew's name and then she said attention, and right after she said attention, the red light flickered on. We thought that was the start light so we were going to go," said bow seat Simon Dillon.
"But only one person kind of jolted, didn't take a full stroke, but just jolted. And then green light went on and we were flustered and everyone took their stroke frantically. I didn’t know what to think," Dillon said.
"I was just hoping that everyone would hold their confidence and keep going."
Not everyone on the crew was even aware of the mishap, and coxswain Natasha Ellis knew it. She said she thought about saying something, then decided not to. "I thought, nah, screw it. We're just going to keep going."
And they did, all the way down the course, fighting off attacks from Oakland Strokes, until they crossed the finish line in first to win the national championship. "This is just so amazing to have," said Jason Goode, as he clutched the championship trophy.
"This took hours and hours and hours of work. Practices day and night. This means everything. It just means everything."
It was that kind of day at the USRowing Youth National Championships.
In 18 events, months of training and three days of racing came down to today's finals to end a Florida weekend that included hot, burning sunshine, sudden tropical storms and drenching rains, delays, and then a trip to the awards ceremony for the top three finishers in all events.
It was also a day in which start line drama included more than just rushed strokes, and rowers demonstrated the kind of character, perseverance, and dedication, that standout athletes possess.
The finals racing followed a weekend schedule that saw nearly all the D level finals postponed from Saturday, and had Sunday finals moved to Sunday morning before the Florida warmth and humidity could brew up another thunderstorm deluge.
The schedule was compacted, awards were moved into the venue hospitality tent - just in case - and in race after championship race, crews gave everything they had. Six of the races needed finish line photos to determine who won or medaled.
For the athletes and parents and spectators, Sunday was a day of best races, medals and memories that will last a lifetime. row2k would have loved to have had time to talk with participants from every event.
There were stories in all of them.
But, between photographing the racing and awards, we talked to as many as we could. There are already more than one thousand photos posted. There are many more to come. Below are some the stories and images of the day.
And it is fitting that this kind of a day began with a sky full of sunrise color.
Women's Youth Single
Connecticut-based New Canaan High School single sculler Claire Campbell has been following in the footsteps of her brother, Andrew, throughout her time as a junior athlete. When she earned her place in Sarasota with a win at the Northeast regionals, she was among the favorites to take national gold.
And she did, finishing more than six seconds in front.
But having an accomplished lightweight sculler brother whose last spin down a race course was in the final of the lightweight men's double at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, means when he offers some advice - little sister listens.
"Yesterday, he was sending me videos of him rowing," she said. "I've been asking how to master a perfect stroke and he was like, 'Look at this cool video. This is my best stroke.' And so, I was studying his video. He's been super helpful."
Of her own race, Campbell said "I was really nervous. It was tough competition and I definitely knew it was going to be a race, but I feel like I have trained really well, and my coach is amazing and I knew I could do this," she said.
"This was my last high school race. I'm going to take a few days off, be a teenager, play with my dogs now."
Finishing third in the event was Megan Hinkle from Greater Dayton Rowing Association. Hinkle advanced in second from one of the tightest semifinals from the Saturday racing, one that included a photo finish for third.
She was fourth in the event at last year's youth nationals and is leaving this one with a bronze medal. "This means a lot. I worked a lot harder this year than I did last year and I definitely wanted it more. So, this is rewarding."
Men's Youth Quad
We probably would not have singled out a second New Canaan crew, except the men's gold medal youth quad drew the entire venue's attention by rushing out in front of the live stream camera on the finish line and doing a "Dap"-heavy dance they named the Snerky."
"It's a really special feeling to know that all your hard work from the past multiple months has paid off finally. It's just a really good feeling. We've really been working hard for so long," said Will Legenzowski.
And the dance?
"That was my idea because, well, why not? And, I thought it was funny. It just kind of came to me. I just felt it and went with it."
Keeping in the moment of having a really fun celebration, Daniel Cone jumped in, named the dance and gave his version of how it happened.
"I was kind of waiting for the camera to pan over to us, we were trying to find it, and once it panned over to us we all started dancing. It was involuntary at that point. We were a little excited."
Women's Youth Quad
Four years ago, Y Quad Cities from Moline, Ill., won their first national championship in the quad. Sunday, they won their fourth consecutive title.
"This is the fourth year we won," said coach Peter Sharis. "This year, Narragansett was the most formidable opponent over the four years. In the first two rounds, we tried to conserve our energy. In the final, we were neck and neck for the first eight-hundred meters and then we took a planned twenty-stroke move that worked for us and we gained some ground. And, in the second half the crew really crushed it."
Sharis, who is a 1992 U.S. Olympian, has been involved with the Y Quad Cities team since his daughter Elizabeth injured her knee playing soccer and discovered she had her dad's championship caliber genes.
His youngest, Caroline, also has the genes, and raced in this year's quad. "This feels incredible. We worked really hard these past months and it all just came together," said Caroline.
"This really feels great to win and to be part of this boat for the second year in a row," said Ann Phillips. "We had a really strong race. It was a little bit nerve wracking. A lot was on our shoulders."
Worth mentioning here is that Y Quad didn't just leave Sarasota with one gold medal. They also brought home the gold from the women's youth lightweight double.
Women's Youth Four
Among the happy athletes walking around the venue carrying a trophy, wearing gold medals and being proud to say "we're national champions" were Sydney Ranker and Abby Paiva, who rowed in the women's youth four with Gold River, CA, based Capital Crew.
"This is the best feeling, and it is so rewarding for all the hard work. It's just the best feeling. Nothing gets better than this," said Ranker.
"Before the race started, I was so nervous, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. But as soon as we finished our first five high strokes, and we got into our race, I just felt all of the work that my crew put into our boat this year," said Paiva.
"There was nothing that could stop us. I've been rowing now for five years and this was the most amazing thing that's happened to me.
Women's Youth Lightweight Four
Not every story from the Youth National finals was about who won. This one is about four girls who demonstrated a level of character and commitment to each other that makes championship rowing what it is, and is truly a story worth sharing.
Before the start of the women's youth lightweight four, Long Beach Junior Crew coxswain Mary Ryan had a medical emergency, had to be taken from the boat and required medical assistance at a local hospital.
The girls took some time to calm down and refocus and then the boy's lightweight four coxswain jumped in as emergency medical replacement and steered the crew to silver medal, photo finish.
When the racing was over, the crew carried Ryan's yellow Crocs to the awards ceremony and draped her medal over them for the crew photo.
"We were sitting at the start line and about to go into our dock and our coxswain wasn't responding," said Rachel Taeubel. "Thankfully there was someone there who was experienced with that and she took over from there and then the ambulance came. She is in the hospital and recovering and she's doing well," she said.
"We put in a guy's coxswain who had raced in the men's lightweight four," said Taeubel's twin sister and boat mate, Jacqueline. "Then we raced, and our race was for her. She said that if she was going to be a national champion, she wanted to do it in her Crocs. So, we brought them in the boat and then we brought them to the medal stand."
The moment impressed their coach, U.S. 2012 Olympian Peter Graves. "It was amazing that the girls went from crying hysterically to starting the race. That was an accomplishment in itself."