High school regattas are always tremendous displays of emotion and extremes. This is rawness and newness to it all for many of the kids; some have never won big races before, some have never lost big races before, and it shows in how they race, and for sure how they celebrate, and how they react to and start making memories that will form them as they approach adulthood.
Nowhere is this on better display than the Stotesbury Regatta, which is special in its ability to find the time to let kids enjoy the moment, to have teams meet the namesakes of the awards, to hand out flowers and medals as if it mattered - really not to gloss over the moment, but to celebrate it.
And celebrations there were this year – row2k's photographer had never been to the event before, and had this to say at the end: "These high school kids have some ridiculous celebrations" (and that is ridiculous in a good way – usually, I suppose).
But all this was overshadowed this weekend by the unspeakably poignant moment of the Episcopal School's senior boys four reaching the medals dock today without Paul Pratt, their crew member who died in a car accident on Thursday evening on his way home from practice.
When the crew reached the dock after taking bronze, elation and pride mixed with deep sadness was marked by cheers and tears from the throngs as "Pull for Paul," which became the team's cheer (not to mention homemade tattoos) as a bulwark against their tremendous loss just hours before.
When they landed, the winning Montclair and the silver medal Father Judge crews went straight to the far end of the dock to congratulate and console the Episcopal crew, where they were finally joined by Paul's mother Kimberly, who accepted a fifth medal offered by the regatta in honor and memory of her son.
Before the boy's four, fully four Episcopal crews made it to the medals docks, including the light boy's double, who almost chose not to race as Molly Konopka explains below, but whose mid-race call of "Pull for Paul" was echoed immediately by Bonner bow seat Chris Nichols in the next lane; by day's end, it seemed like all of Philly was hurting for, and rowing for, Paul.
Episcopal coach Molly Konopka spoke eloquently about how the team is doing and how they approached the regatta in the way they hoped honored their friend and teammate; here is that conversation.
I think really the one thing people in the rowing community would most care about is how you are all doing.
The kids are doing okay. I can't say great, but they're doing great in the situation they're in. But I think they're struggling. Paul used to always say, yeah, everyone shows up at the football games, everyone shows up at the lacrosse games, no one shows up at the river. So yesterday when this all came out at 7:30 in the morning at school, the junior class said, we're all going to the river today. And the school made that happen. The kids could do what they could on the river because they had the kids on land, and the kids on land could do what they did because they had the kids on the river. Today is a perfect testament to resilience and support, and the rowing community has been unbelievable. There hasn't been a coach who hasn't come up and given condolences. Boathouse Row, when these guys shoved off for any of their races, there were people on everyone one of those docks cheering them on, just to go out and race.
Did the kids consider not racing?
We had to scratch the early boats, because we had to tell the whole team, and that kept them from getting on the water for the race. But then we said to the varsity boats, it is up to you if you race. Our lightweight double opted at first not to race, and walked out of the chapel, and Bruce (Konopka) and their parents said, you know, you might want to reconsider that. You might regret making that decision, just not knowing what you can do. And they won.
The boys four was the first to make the decision to say they were rowing, which meant taking out someone new in the crew. And the girls boats all wanted to row for Paul, because they knew that was what he would want to do.
And the girls' quad was covered with tattoos.
They spent the whole day at the boathouse doing that! And I thought we would have to scratch our boys eight, and then they said, well we're losing our seven seat, but can we pull up a freshman. So to think they would enter a race like the boys varsity eight with a freshman in order just to go race the race showed real strength of character.
All yesterday, going down the river, the different crews stopped by; the LaSalle boys came over, Merion Mercy came over, the Haverford School, our greatest rival came down.
SRAA's, we have six boats qualified for that, so we are going to play it by ear. Most of them will row, I think. Paul's service is at school on Thursday night, which means the next morning they would be in Camden racing, so that is something I think they (the athletes) need to consider. I think it would be good either way, but I think we will wait a bit to decide.
As I mentioned, the crews who raced in the event (and the larger regatta) were powerfully affected as well; here is Montclair coach Jeremy Michalitsianos on his crew and the event.
The guys have had a great season so far, is it the same guys from last year?
It's the same guys for four years; the first year they sculled, because we try to get the crews to scull for a year, then they rowed junior for two years. They didn't win it the first year, they won it the second year, and we brought them back this year.
How did they deal with the challenges of executing it this year.
Given everything that has happened, we were having a tight battle with Episcopal all year, we knew it was going to be a close race, and this wasn't the way we wanted to win this race. It's heartbreaking for us as well as for everyone else, and you don't know who would have won the race today, but it is meaningless in a certain sense. I'm pleased for the boys, as they wanted to win it, but really yesterday and today… the whole team were in tears last night, it was all about that four and what happened to the boy and their team. It is really about how upset and devastated we all are for them and what they're going through. As I say, it's a trophy, but it is hard to explain… it is obviously not how you want it to be.
How did you talk to your guys about the race?
Well, they obviously wanted to race us, and so we will race. I said to the boys, you respect them. If they want to race, you go and race them, you race hard and do what you would normally do, because anything less and you're not respecting their wishes and the boy's parents, they all wanted to race. So you go and respect them and you race them as hard as you can.
It comes tinged with terrible, terrible sadness, and you would not want to win this way in a million years, but hopefully coming out to race helped them (the Episcopal crew) through the day, and they raced like lionhearts.
More from a number of coaches of winning crews follows, with apologies to the crews I was not able to talk to this weekend; this is our hardest weekend at row2k, and some logistical challenges kept me from being at the dock all day as has been the case in past years. We will have another report posted soon that will cover many of the earlier races.
Marc Mandel, Gonzaga Second Eight
How did you assess your chances coming into the competition?
Mandel: they've won all their races this season against really good competition, so we knew if we rowed well we could win the race.
Any pressure in being in that position? Because it was a really close race.
We knew that LaSalle, and St. Albans, and Winter Park, they're all great programs, great crews, but we've been through a lot of lineup changes in the last three weeks, and we talked about how these guys are very battle-tested, and I think that's what made them special. And it was a battle; it came down to half a second. We had a great sprint at the end just to hold LaSalle off.
Is that a characteristic of the crew?
We haven't had to sprint all year; we practiced a little bit last week, but when you're under fire, and you gotta get it done, these guys got it done.
Meg Kennedy, Mount St. Joseph Second Eight
Did you think this crew could do this here today?'
I did, absolutely. This boat has come so far this season it has been amazing. If you had asked me at the fifth Flick if they would win the Stotesbury, or at Cities even, I would have had a hard time believing they would make the final. But the last couple weeks they have come on, and every stroke they took they have gotten faster.
What made the difference?
They just wanted it. They just decided they were just not going to lose. And that's how they raced it, all three races at Stotesbury.
So no surprise at all?
You know, you say that, but no; I launched them feeling like they could win.
Are these young kids?
It is eight seniors and one sophomore. So she's got a lot to live up to in the next two years!
That is experienced, did that help them?
It did; the second eight is always like the underdog crew, people being seat raced in and out during the season, so there is a little bit of that anger that builds up, but that is what makes boats fast.
The release on the dock was pretty significant.
Yeah, it was great! The support of the team and the school has been great.
Paul Coomes, Conestoga Senior Quad
This was a pretty convincing win with this boat; did you think this was how it was going to play out?
These girls have had a really strong season, so a lot of the crews here with the exception of Ridley, we've raced all season. It's been tight, so we knew coming into it it was going to be a close, hard-fought race. So they were ready to go today. They were pumped up and excited, and I think they raced a good race, got out in front and were able to hold it.
When you don't see a crew like Ridley, how do you approach that? They have a little bit of an aura about them, they're well known, they are from another country?
When you don't see those crews, you're a little worried about them. Of course coming from St. Catharines, all those crews are really well-coached, and when they come down there you know they're going to be good, so we just try to race the best race we can and prepare as well as we can, that's all you can do.
The girls are all juniors, they've been together since freshman year. They won the freshman quad their freshman, and they won this event last year as sophomores.
So next year? Is it possible to fourpeat?
We'll see! (Laughs) it's hard, absolutely, they've got a lot of good competition to hold their seats
Craig Hoffman, Malvern
How do you assess the crew's season so far?
We've been up and down, and our competition has been terrific, and we're trying to finish out the season, and we're fortunate to come this far.
It was an open water win, did that surprise you?
We had an open water loss two weeks ago, so we have one more race next week.
How do you turn that around in two weeks?
The kids were unhappy, the coaches were unhappy. So they worked real hard.
How does your current group compare to past years?
It's a very young group, they're all underclassmen.
On a technical point, it looks a little different than it did a few years ago. Are you coaching a different technique at all?
No, some people scull a little better, some a little worse; we still lay back a lot.
There seems to be a little less strict posture?
We evolve with the kids. Every individual kid rows a little bit different, and we tried to find a compromise style that worked well in the boat.
Senior Boys Single, Max Ferguson
This was a close race, did you expect that?
Well, every race is unpredictable, but you just go your hardest and it is what it is, and pull hard and hopefully come out on top?
How did you get yourself ahead in this final?
Setting a hard pace, and just staying focused on yourself and pushing to the limit, and making sure you stay there.
Do you know the guys you are racing against; have you raced them a lot? Have you traded pieces with them at all?
I do, I know them well. In the past I have come close, and sometimes you have a bad race, but more or less I have been in the top or second place.
Ferguson is headed next to club nationals, and then the junior trials.
Senior Girls Single, Emily Mann
Do you race the single all the time, and have you raced the scullers you met here?
I am, and I have raced the girl who came second at CanAmex this summer, she was on the American team, so I knew her before this regatta. But we did not race in a single; I was in a quad and she was in a double.
How did you prepare for a race where you didn't know anything about anybody, really?
I just wanted to get it right off the start, because I am a pretty determined person, so if I get out ahead I can stay there, so that is what I did in pretty much every single one of my races.
Was it hard hanging on down the course?
She caught up a bit at the end, but I had open water in the first 500, so that was good.
Mann hopes to race U-23 this summer, and is going to UMass next year.
Ken Wakulich, EL Crossley Senior Girls Four
Traveling down for this race, did you know your competition coming into the regatta?
Oh yeah, we know the regatta well? We didn't really know the crews, but we know basically what has to be down in terms of putting together a good race here.
How has this crew's season been so far?
Actually it is only our second regatta, because the regatta got blown out in St. Catharines last week. We raced in Saratoga.
How do you deal with coming into a big race like this with so little racing?
I've been coming here since I guess 1976 or 77, so I know this regatta!
Paul Allbright, Girls Senior Eight, James Madison
Have you ever won this event?
We have not. Two years ago we got fourth, last year we got third, and this year we were able to pull it off.
Did you skip second on purpose?
No, that wasn't intentional, but we are proud of the second eight today, they got second this year, and really helped push the senior boat to where they are today.
How has the season gone so far for the crews?
Both boats at home have a three year undefeated streak for our regular season. We've been threepeat state champions, and were able to continue that this year. They are really good sparring partners on the course, and I think sharpen each other up, and that is why they are so successful.
After undefeated seasons where you weren't able to win here, what did you do to get through to the front this year?
We always try to acknowledge what we did great in a piece, and then look really critically at what we can do better, and I think we can within a few seconds of winning last year, and had the lead about 150-200 to go, and we realized as we only made third place by five-hundreds of a second to Winter Park, we had some work to do. The second eight actually won here last year, and the coxswain and bow pair moved up into the senior eight, and I think added a little extra confidence and experience. I have five really hardworking seniors all going on to row at D1 scholarship schools next year. Basically we refocused on efficiency, and simplified our approach to technique and went back to basics. I knew their power was there, and their confidence and drive was there, so we just needed to figure out a way to get a little more run, and with a seven-second win today I think we figured it out!
When I read about the origin of the trophy, which has to do with efficiency, I was just about knocked over, because efficiency has been our goal this year. We had some races earlier where we were rowing way lower than anyone else and were able to win. So we had a guest coach in the past few weeks, and he said "okay, I want you to go Diesel." So we asked if the kids knew what diesel is, and they said sure, you get more power and more efficiency. And he said okay, well you guys are the diesel crew. So that was our cheer down on the dock if you heard it, 1, 2, 3 Diesel! So we would always say "we're going to do some diesel pieces today."
Marc Mandel, Senior Boys Eight, Gonzaga
Has your crew ever done anything like the double gold in the eights today? I can't imagine it happens often. What has made this group so special?
No, never. I don't think it has happened very often, at least recently. We won it last year, and returned four guys, and we had a very good second eight last year. These guys, there is something intrinsic about them; they're very coachable, they're very hardworking. They're not the biggest guys – we average less than 170 pounds – but they just embraced the sport, they've embraced what we've done, and every year has built on the previous year. And our third eight was third in the junior eight event, so we've had a pretty incredible day for our group.
You have a pretty good run going.
They haven't lost – domestically – in this is the second straight year. So it's uncharted territory. And that was the biggest challenge of this year, sort of the subconscious expectations that you have had all this success and you want to continue it, and you want to be there again, and it's so rewarding to actually let it happen.
Was there any risk of the thought sneaking in that, well, we did it last time, so it's going to be easy, it's done?
Not with these guys. They are so motivated, so professional, but what I said before the race was that they have always risen to the occasion, they have never let each other down, ever in two years, so I felt confident that they would rise to the occasion here. And they did in the last 500, they found a way to get ahead.
You have the SRAAs next week; is that a hard turnaround?
We did it last year, but I think so; there was contact here, three boats overlapping, and the races are short races, anything can happen, so this coming week, what do you do from a training standpoint? You can't do a lot of work, but you can't do nothing; and we have finals coming up. But the guys are so resilient and they rise to the moment.