By midday Sunday, the 2019 Youth National Championships had been over for more than an hour. The athletes and coaches who made up 417 crews that came to Sarasota for the season-ending regatta were busy loading boats onto trailers and saying goodbye to friends they had met and raced against this year or in past seasons.
For the seniors in the hot and dusty boat yard, it was the end of a long high school career, and the goodbyes were either just for now if rowing in college was in the future, or maybe for good for those that won't - even if there were promises to stay in touch.
Still others, the youngest among them who have more high school years ahead, were making promises to see each other at the next round of racing - this summer or next season. Many of those were eyeing the medals being worn by the crews that won, and thinking what it will take to add their names to the list of past winners.
Eli Rabinowitz was one of those younger kids three years ago in the very same parking lot, loading a RowAmerica Rye eight onto a trailer for the haul back to New York. He was a sophomore then, had just rowed to a last place showing in the boys' heavy varsity eight, and was thinking about the next one that would be held in Gold River, California, 2018.
His crew finished third in the B final that time, eight places closer to the A final, still not what he was looking for.
"I was in that eight, seven seat, we got third in the B final," Rabinowitz said. "So another not superb result." The next fall season Rabinowitz - now a men's team captain - was back in that eight, back in seven, and won at the Head of the Charles Regatta - a result that reloaded the team's passion and commitment to racing this past weekend.
And, now, there he was Sunday, a national champion in the boys' varsity eight, saying his goodbyes for now, with a summer ahead, and the start of a new chapter in rowing approaching next fall.
Eli Rabinowitz, seven seat, celebrating a victory three years in the making with Row America Rye
"I'm off to Georgetown lightweights next year to compete in the lightweight conference in the Eastern Sprints league, and I'm very excited," he said. "It's a new opportunity, a new page of rowing, racing against some of my former teammates now, and people who are my best friends. It will be cool to see them in another boat."
"Today, this is about bringing to fruition everything I have worked so hard for the past four years," he said. "We didn't have a great row two years ago when I was here. We didn't have a great race last year when I was out in California, but we knew if we did everything right this weekend we could be national champions."
Rabinowitz's path to a national championship was started in a many ways the same way as it was for lot of the athletes in Sarasota. His parents had rowed collegiately "for fun" and had passed their love of the sport down to their him. There was not a lot of rowing near Rye, New York, when Rabinowitz was in grade school, but RowAmerica opened an affiliate in Rye and posted some signs in the neighborhood. Rabinowitz saw one, told his parents and now he is heading to row in college.
Not all of the athletes who competed last weekend had parents who passed the legacy of rowing along to their children. Some were brought to the sport by friends, fell in love with crew because it was fun, and were lucky to have met coaches who channeled their desires and passions into structured hard work, and taught them no matter who they were, what size program they came from, that they could compete for - and maybe win - a high school championship.
Merion Mercy Academy's Mike Brown is one of those coaches. He has been heading up the small all girls high school team for several years, teaching them to row and passing on his own passion for the sport he grew up being a part of in Philadelphia, sculling from Boat House Row and the Malta Boat Club.
Most years, Brown will take his girls to regattas where they know they will be competitive, with a chance to win. Small scholastic schools sometimes are underdogs when they get into regattas and race against large club teams that can draw from outside of the school's student body.
This year Merion Mercy qualified a lightweight girls four for the Youth Nationals, and they came to Sarasota because they were good enough to compete. They thought they had a shot. And they did. They advanced and earned a place in the A final
The night before the Sunday final, Brown sent out a message to the team and the parents back home to let them all know how proud he was of them. Brown is a numbers guy, so he did the math, and stated the odds.
He told them that of the 108 crews that will compete in the A finals, of the 54 girls crews with a chance to win a championship, only 5 come from scholastic programs, while 49 are club teams. That's nine percent scholastic to 91 percent club.
Merion Mercy crew and coach Mike Brown
"That's just the straight up math," said Brown.
Sunday his girls won. "I'm beyond proud," he said before the medals ceremony. "It's going to be a long time before another scholastic team wins this, given the competition at the club level." Brown has been doing this for a while, and he doesn't do it to make a point about scholastic versus club teams, or just to win. He teaches and coaches the sport because of the positive impact it has on young lives.
"It's all the hard work and dedication, and the kids that were behind the scenes, that weren't in the medal boat, that made the boat medal."
Brown - it's a Philly thing - likes the underdog role, and his girls do well with that motivation.
"It's amazing to be from small high school outside of Philly," said senior Izzy Baily, "We have about 400 girls in our school, 36 girls on our team, seven coxswains, and we only physically have six boats. So to be able to cross the finish line and win gold and bring it back to our team is such an honor. We're from Philly, so we have to be the underdogs," Baily said.
"It's kind of a really small rowing community in Philly, everyone knows each other, and even shoving off the dock all the Philly schools were cheering for us. It was just a really special feeling to be from there and knowing everyone has your back."
The thing about rowing that was in full of display all weekend was, no matter who is racing, it can be a small community even nationally, and the athletes in it respect each other for the work that goes into the preparation.
And it takes hard work to succeed, again and again. One program that exemplifies that is Y Quad Cities, out of Moline, Illinois. Y Quad's girls sculling program has won the girls quad the last five years, and they made it six straight Sunday.
They also won the girl's double with two of the women that rowed the quad. They came down the course, won the double, rowed up the recovery channel to the launch dock to get into the quad and back up to the start line.
Y Quad Cities celebrating a sixth consecutive national championship
"This is six times for the quad," said coach Peter Sharis, who has been coaching and training the squad, and had two daughters , Elizabeth and Caroline, who were both part of the various crews but are now rowing collegiately.
"We always have one or two new athletes that get into the mix every year," Sharis said. "So the competition for that fourth, fifth and six spot on the team is usually really high, so basically the internal competition keeps the level up there. They are really motivated kids, and are real easy to work with.
"We certainly don't take winning for granted, I mean every year we start out from scratch and the goal is to try to have a fast boat every spring," he said. "This year we sort of worked up a little bit more slowly.
"The fall maybe wasn't going as strong as it has in the past, so we sat down with the kids and got things back on track and had a really good spring season," he said.
"The flooding in the Midwest was really bad, and we ended up being stuck inside for an extended indoor season. But it may have helped to get the conditioning level up to where we wanted it to be. The kids in the quad are pretty experienced technically, so missing that water time didn't hurt us too much."
Winning one time, or winning repeatedly, the experience of competing against the highest available competition is both rewarding and nerve wracking.
Just ask Cassandra Reed, of Belmont High School, Belmont, Massachusetts. She won the girl's single yesterday for the second consecutive year. But she went to the line Sunday nervous because of the respect she has for fellow competitor Katelin Gindersleeve of the Episcopal School of Dallas.
Cassandra Reed with her parents and coach
"This was really amazing. I won it last year and I was really nervous coming into this race, but it was amazing. Katlin is really fast, she is extremely fast. I was just trying to think about everyone on my team back home, and just really doing it for them, just going out as hard as I can and just thinking about them racing next to me."
When Reed crossed the line, she raised her arms in triumph, and then cheered for Gindersleeve as she crossed the line in second. Gindersleeve looked over, smiled and waved.
As the packing up and trailer loading continued in the trailer lot, one of the best examples of how much the athletes put into their sport, how much they like competing, and who they would rather spend a graduation weekend with was happening on the beach.
Many of the athletes missed their school graduation to be in Sarasota, including the kids from Brookline High School who were having a graduation ceremony all their own.
"We're graduating here in Sarasota," said Julia Chandler. "It's completely worth it to go to nationals instead of graduation. Who wouldn't take that. It was great. Everyone had tough races, and our boys made A finals. We're really proud of them. We were in the girls light eight and we really gave it all on the course," she said.
"Honestly, it's so much better to be graduating here with all of my closest friends then to be just one face sitting in a crowd with the 500 kids in my grade," added teammate Elizabeth Whitehead.