row2k wraps up our spring preview features with an interview with Dartmouth senior Brendon Stoner. Stoner returned to rowing following a major back injury in high school and recently won a silver medal as part of the USA U23 M8+ in 2013.
row2k - How did you get your start in rowing and why did you decide to enroll at Dartmouth?
Brendon Stoner - I started rowing as a sophomore in high school at St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH, where underclassmen are required to do a sport every term. I didn’t grow up in a sporting household, but thought I would try this very foreign sport and was hooked immediately. At our first meeting, the Coach, Chip Morgan, said that rowing is a sport where you get out what you put in. If you work hard, you will succeed. This has proven to be true.
In terms of college, I narrowed it down to two schools by September of senior year. After my official visit, Dartmouth became the top choice. The Connecticut River is a beautiful place to row and I loved the team atmosphere. I had spent summers in New Hampshire growing up and went to high school in its capital city, developing a love for the State and its great outdoors. Dartmouth is a place where you can always get outside and where a nature-lover can thrive. Academically, the undergraduate teaching is renowned and that was very important to me. To be frank, I also liked the personal responsibility that was and is inherent to joining a team that had not had a lot of recent success.
row2k - You overcame some injuries your freshmen year, what happened and did you ever question not coming back to the sport?
Brendon Stoner - In April of my senior year in high school (2010), my family and I were on our way home from a race and a teenager in an oncoming car fell asleep at the wheel, hitting us head on. As a result, the L5/S1 disc in my lower back herniated, causing my sciatic nerve to fire continuously for what, I hope, was the worst nine months of my life. I was certain I would never row again when, for my high school graduation, my dad had to help me put my pants and socks on because I could not reach my own feet.
After 13 unsuccessful cortisone shots that summer, we knew that something more aggressive was needed, and decided to try a minimally invasive micro-discectomy. Brief explanation: discs are like jelly donuts that sit between your vertebrae. When they rupture, the jelly comes out and fires a nerve. The idea behind this surgery is to go in and get the ruptured jelly out and mend the disc. Although we didn’t find out until months later, they think much of my remaining jelly came out almost immediately after that first surgery.
I came to Dartmouth without an identity and in more pain than I can express. It was a living hell, and by February it was clear that something needed to be done because I could not get through the day without heat pads, ice wraps, and a lot of heavy painkillers—not the most ideal place to be as a freshman in college. I went home and got a total disc replacement, a relatively risky surgery given my age and the location of my herniation (see imbedded photo). However, it was ultimately a success and I was back to Dartmouth for the spring term. From there, things were straightforward. They weren’t easy, but they were simple. I biked and did everything possible to get my fitness back, returning to the erg by mid-April. For the first time in almost a year, I thought I might be able to row again. I earned my way into our freshman boat by Eastern Sprints and never looked back.
row2k - Your coach says you've dropped a significant amount of time on your 6k over the past three years, what have you done to see such improvement?
Brendon Stoner - As you can imagine, a year off did not serve my fitness well. However, that year did give me a new lease on life and I promised myself I would never take my body for granted. Throughout sophomore year, I focused on resetting freshman year. I still had a number of residual side effects from the injury and surgery, but I worked as hard as my body would allow and got my scores back to where they had been in high school. I also focused on losing a lot of the weight gained during freshman year, dropping about 35 pounds over the course of the year. In terms of my more notable improvements, it was just a matter of meters on the erg. Starting sophomore summer, I made a point to hit the erg at least an hour a day and avoid off days at any cost.
I am an Arabic major and spent my Junior fall abroad in Jordan. While there was some concern that this term could potentially hurt my rowing, my stint abroad ended up benefitting it. In addition to the meter requirements, there were requisite threshold workouts every week that really boosted my erg scores. Those workouts combined with having to find an erg in Jordan and commit to getting there every morning before class really gave me the confidence that I could make it through just about any rowing environment. Since then, meters on the erg have really defined my training. I just try to keep up the same volume and improve my average monthly split a little bit, every month.
row2k - What was your experience like racing in the USA U23 M8+ this summer?
Brendon Stoner - It was a great experience and I was honored to row with such a hardworking group of guys. The stress of the selection process cannot be overstated, but it really does reward those people who just keep their heads down and keep punching. I felt a tremendous sense of redemption and personal victory after so much defeat just a few years earlier. Personally, the largest reward and honor was representing the United States on the world stage. Representing this great and exceptional country was a dream come true and something that will always be a source of pride.
row2k - What has been your most memorable race so far and why?
Brendon Stoner - The final at the U23 Championships last summer was definitely my most memorable race. After a disappointing heat, we recognized our failure to execute on the world stage and realized that we had to row more maturely. In the final, we did just that, having our best race of the regatta and finishing with the silver. It was a great race. We started down on the field but stayed composed and worked our way back to finish in the second position. Rowing with such mature athletes was an honor.
row2k - What are some of your interests away from the boathouse?
Brendon Stoner - In addition to rowing, I’m a flying nut. I earned my pilot’s license when I was in high school and have been a frequent flyer since then. I actually earned my commercial rating this past summer after getting back from Linz. There was definitely a void where all that training had been and I felt the need to fill it with something exciting and challenging. Flying is an excellent way to challenge yourself and stay mentally quick. I’m also a puzzle fanatic. I love Sudoku and Rubik’s cubes and you will always see me cracking away at the cube before races; it helps keep the nerves down.
row2k - How has this season gone, and what are your goals for the spring?
Brendon Stoner - The season is going well. We’re just wrapping up our spring trip in Oak Ridge, TN and are headed back to icy Hanover later this week. Our team goals are obvious—to go as fast possible and win races. My personal goals parallel those of the team, but I also hope to be a positive influence on the younger guys. Being a senior, you really do start to think about legacy and I hope mine is one of hard-work and positivity.
row2k - What are you studying at Dartmouth and do you have any plans yet for after college?
Brendon Stoner - I am an Arabic major at Dartmouth and hope to use my knowledge of the language and the region after graduation. I know rowing has a place in my life and I’m trying to figure out how it may fit into life after graduation. I’ll be keeping my options and my eyes open.