Three weeks ago Wednesday, the Montclair High School men's eight was getting ready for another training session and preparing to make a run at the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup at the 2018 Henley Royal Regatta.
Their entry had been planned for over a year and was being backed up by a season full of medal results, including victories at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, the SRAA National Championships, and a bronze medal at the Youth National Championships.
Coach Jeremy Michalitsianos had even brought the crew to the 2017 Henley to give them a taste of what racing at Henley-on-Thames was like, and what it would take to win. "We came last year to gain experience and came back again this year," Michalitsianos said.
"We knew as a school crew, the original school crew with the same eight men and the coxswain, that we needed experience to come back here and do what we felt we could do. We wouldn't have entered this year if we hadn’t had such a good season."
But on that Wednesday morning, exactly three weeks ago today, two of the crew were driving together to practice and were involved in a serious car crash. According to Michalitsianos, the boy's car went into the opposite lane of traffic and was hit broadside.
"They collided with an oncoming car side on, and were T-boned," Michalitsianos said. "The five-man sustained a broken hip and the bow man sustained a concussion, so both are out for six to eight weeks."
And so, it seemed, were the plans to race at Henley.
But the Montclair team was faced with a situation that they did not want to easily let go off. They had already paid for the trip over, had purchased their blazers and Henley gear, and they wanted to come.
Michalitsianos said he called US Henley Stewards Jamie Koven and Gillian Perry, told them what happened, and asked for options. On the call, he asked that if they pulled in two former Montclair crew athletes, who also rowed for the team's club organization, the Montclair Mounties, was there a possibility of bumping into the Thames Challenge as a club team?
"We were into the PE, the schoolboys event," he said. "What we tried to do was make the best of a bad situation after a really great year for us. We were proud to come over and race as a school crew, but we had to change our plans and get ourselves up for that mentally, which was difficult. It was huge disappointment when the lads got hurt."
Michalitsianos said he was given the green light from Henley and the trip was back on. Wednesday, in the first round of heats in the event, Montclair pulled into the lead early and held off Upper Thames Rowing Club to advance into Thursday's round.
"Fortunately," Michalitsianos said, "we took an early lead and took the pressure off ourselves. In a six lane race it might have been different, but Henley is dual racing and we were able to get away from them reasonably quickly and put them under pressure and control the race as we wanted to.
"The guys are kind of up for (racing the club event) now," he said. "I feel like we've got nothing to lose, being pretty much a young crew - we have a 16-year-old in the crew and the oldest kid is 22 - so I don't think we have much to lose other than go out there and show how quick we are and try and beat a few people, which is what we intend to do."
While the Montclair story began as an unhappy one after the car crash, it was one of the highlights of the first day of racing in the five-day Henley Royal Regatta for some of the 35 US crews that entered to compete.
Of the 19 US crews that raced in the UK on the 4th of July, 11 advanced into the next round, and of the nine that were eliminated, two were eliminated by other US crews.
On a perfect and a bit toasty early summer day in the UK, the first day of Henley racing was met by crowds that lined the banks of the river and fans that paddled out for a close look in row boats and inner tubes.
Tri-Corner fan relaxing on the water next to the race course
It was not all great news for the US crews, four of whom had to race each other in the one-and-done Henley format. That is a long way to come for a race against a team from within driving distance back home.
For example, in afternoon racing, Temple University was eliminated from the Temple Challenge Cup by Yale University, a race with a plot twist that saw Temple junior Steve Gennaro racing against the Yale boat coached by his older brother Mike. (See that full story here.)
Yale defeated Temple
Late in the afternoon - just after the "Tea Interval" - Syracuse University eliminated Cornell University to move ahead one day and claim New York State bragging rights. Syracuse led from the start and finished a length ahead of Cornell.
"It would be just our luck that we would be racing another team from the United States, from the same state as us, and about an hour away," said Syracuse coxswain Dom Santora. "It's bragging rights. They took the Goes Cup from us, we took IRA and Sprints from them, so it was kind of like we had to make sure we were backing up what we had been doing all season.
"I thought we had a good race," Santora said. "I thought we had some speed left to gain out there. It was good to get the nerves out and have a first row down. We're waiting to see who we have to face tomorrow and we are looking to improve on the little things that we talked about post-race."
Other US crews that had solid, and positive, results in the Temple Challenge included Brown, Princeton, Washington and Orange Coast.
For the US women's entries, Yale University led the day with a win over Oxford Brookes University in the Remenham Challenge Cup. Yale has been in the UK since mid-June having come over with a large squad to race in the Women's Henley.
Wednesday, Yale took the lead off the start and held.
Yale University advances over Oxford Brookes
"We do Women's Henley first, so it's really a three-week trip," said head coach Will Porter, just before his eight-race got started. "We try to avoid the one and done as much as possible. But, the athletes get excited just being here, on this water.
"This place is magical, you put any athlete out there, even the best athletes in the world get excited racing at Henley, so our kids light up as soon as they come over."
With the win, Yale advanced to the Friday round along with the University of Iowa, which defeated Molesey B.C. and Edinburgh University, and the University of Washington crew that defeated The Tideway Scullers' School.
The next round in that event is Friday and certainly one to watch in that event will be the match now set up between the seeded US Under 23 women's training camp eight and Washington's eight, which has three women from the same camp rowing in it.
In the high school events, one US crew advanced and one was eliminated. St. John's High School was defeated by Norwich School while Brunswick School defeated the Reading Blue Coat School.
Meanwhile - Here are Some Notes From the Course
The Henley Royal Regatta may be a well-run 179-year-old machine, but that does not mean there are not glitches. For the better part of Wednesday, the HRR home page live results carried this notice: "Sorry this Page is Unavailable." It was up again by late afternoon. Onwards...
Henley rules are non-negotiable but that does not mean they can't be tested - like this back and forth between a Henley gate security women and an apparently infuriated Stewards guest: "Well madam if you could just wriggle your dress down a bit. It has to cover your knees you see."
Steering the Henley course is hard enough with the booms and the narrow lanes, so there are no shortage of incidents and oar clashes that can cause a crew to be dropped early. Temple University had a slight boom issue in the Temple Challenge and let Yale get away. And then there were two notable clashes.
One involved the Neptune Rowing Club and The Tideway Scullers School in the Fawley Challenge Cup; another resulted in a re-start in the Wyfold Challenge Cup between Lea Rowing Club and Aviron Grenoblois.
Perhaps the most consequential was a Wyfold clash between Stratford-upon-Avon Rowing Club and Swan River Rowing Club that was resulted in a re-row that came down to the last four feet before Swan River won. All three of those encountered can be seen on Matthew Pinsent's Day 1, YouTube highlights.
And speaking of Pinsent, his twitter was feeding a rumor that the heat was causing a discussion of "jackets off" in the Enclosures - whew.
Ah the tweets: row2k saw at least a half-dozen tweets from various participants and fans get deleted today - watch your P's and Q's before posting.
And lastly, Syracuse fans were apparently not happy with the way the name of the university was being announced live: