August had already been the hardest month Thora Hornewer and her teammates at the Chicago Rowing Foundation had ever experienced. In just 10 days, two of the team's most recent alumni had lost their lives.
News of the first death came on Aug. 2. Becca Herbig, the recently graduated coxswain for the women's youth eight, who was just about to head off to row at San Diego State, took her own life. "It was a huge shock to our team," Hornewer said.
"She was definitely one of those people who was always smiling, was friends with everyone, and was just the sweetest person. She had a huge future in front of her, and she was going to go to San Diego State. We were all shocked."
Ten days later, another recent team member was killed when a truck struck the car he was in at a traffic light. The accident killed Garrett Brodersen, and hospitalized in critical condition Greta Pearl, a second former team member who was with him in the car at the time.
"Garrett wasn't on the team at the time," Hornewer said. "But he was previously on the team, and a lot of people still went to school with him. He was definitely still a big part of other people's lives."
Following those two deaths, the club's coaches and parents mobilized to help the athletes deal with the loss, opening up the boathouse for counseling and helping to organize gatherings where the kids could just be together.
It was a rough month, and when the time came for the team to end their summer season, and take a break, Hornewer turned her attention to the coming school year, and the college admission process she was preparing for.
She was up late Aug. 22, had just finished doing homework, and was getting ready to call it a day and get to sleep, when she checked an incoming text message on her phone and learned that a third teammate - Jack Newhall - a rising senior who was one of the most popular, hardworking, guys on the boys' team, was killed in a ATV accident while on a family vacation in New Hampshire.
"I just ran into my parent's room, I couldn't even get the words out; I was just sobbing so hard," Hornewer said. "My parents just didn't know what to do. What do you say to your kids when they've lost three friends. It was hard for us."
On any youth sports team, the death of a single teammate is devastating news. But three in the span of three-weeks was an extraordinary, and almost unending, tragedy. If the club had canceled the upcoming fall season, anyone would have understood.
But in the wake of the triple tragedy, the athletes, coaches and parents of the Chicago Rowing Foundation came together to find a way to help the students cope with the loss, and continue the work of the fall season.
On November 2, rowing in specially designed race unis - one with the initials of all three athletes on the front, the name Newhall on one side, and a design of the team oars shaped as angels wings on the back - the athletes in both the women's and men's crews rowed to victory at the 2019 Head of the Hooch Regatta, a race neither squad had ever won before.
CRF womens' youth eight at the Head of the Hooch
This is the story of a tragic month that did not topple a rowing team, but instead drew them together and began the building of a foundation of support that will remain in place for the future, and is hoped by the team's coaches, and parents, might serve as sort of blueprint that other youth teams could replicate to deal with the pressures of being a teenager in a competitive sports environment, and to deal with the unexpected.
A Triple Tragedy
Mike Wallin has been the head coach and director of rowing at CRF for the last 15 years. He rowed at St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia, rowed on the US junior team in 1998, and rowed at Cal for four years on four IRA championship teams.
Wallin has been in rowing long enough to have heard of teams that have lost an athlete, but the idea that he and his staff would ever face a situation like the one that unfolded in August was nothing he could have ever prepared for.
"Clearly, it was like nothing that anyone in our organization, or anyone that I've even talked to across several rowing spectrums, has ever experienced," Wallin said.
"It started with shocking news no one was expecting. (Becca Herbig), a girl on our team who had just graduated and was about a week or two from going away to row in college on scholarship, had taken her own life. It just completely shook up the whole team.
"We really didn't have anything in place to deal with it," he said. "When this happens at a high school, there's a crisis team, and counselors, but with us being an independent club, we didn't have anything like that in our infrastructure. So, we just started trying to be there for our athletes and opened up the boathouse, and had that be an open place for people to come and be around each other," he said
While Wallin, his staff, the parent's organization, and athletes were all trying to cope and help each other, the second tragedy happened 10 days later.
After a day of hiking, former CRF rowers Brodersen and Pearl were on their way home when, while sitting at a red light, their car was hit by a truck. Brodersen was killed on impact, and Pearl suffered multiple injuries, including a traumatic brain injury. She was hospitalized in critical condition and was only recently released from the hospital.
"The back to back of it was just unbelievable on the kids," Wallin said. "And then, a week after that, Jack Newhall, a rising senior who was probably going to be five-seat in our varsity eight, just an all-around great kid, was killed.
"Everybody loved him, and he was a leader on the boys' team. He was the kind of guy, that if there were three guys that didn't make a boat, and we had to throw a four together to row at a race, he would be the first one to volunteer to get in there with the three slowest guys on the team, and help them try to be successful.
"He was a great human being, and not just a great rower," he said.
The team, Wallin said, had just finished up their last summer practice, and were set to head into a break before coming back together for the fall season when Newhall was killed.
"Needless to say, I don't think there is anybody, ever, who could have been ready for three straight weeks of that. And with Jack still being on the team, and what he meant to everybody, the combination was really brutal.
"None of these were things you could see coming in any way. Becca was happy as far we could see. She was on her way to college. She had friends. We didn't see that coming at all. And the other two were freak accidents."
Building Support - CRF Cares
CRF team photo
In the days after Newhall was killed, Wallin began calling around to former coaches and people in the rowing community. A few had experience dealing with the loss of an athlete, but none had experienced anything like what had happened at CRF.
There were no model programs to replicate. Nothing to serve as a guide on how to help the team cope. So they began to build one, and working with the parents, they established the beginnings of a support program, and named it CRF Cares.
Instrumental in the program's development, in addition to the CRF staff, were Becca's Herbig's mother Terese Herbig, and Newhall's mother, Kelly Newhall.
Terese Herbig is working to put in place a mental health support component, and Kelly Newhall is helping to establish an athlete support system, Wallin said. While the obvious immediate need was dealing with the loss of their three friends, Wallin said the project is evolving in will remain in place to deal with young athletes in the high-pressure situations that are common in high school competitive sports.
"Hopefully, we won't have to do deal with something like this again, but you never know. But this is also intended as a kind of support for our athletes, and staff, if they need it. A kind of overall wellbeing initiative for the kids.
"You just don't who is hurting, or how bad they are hurting, and we want to make sure we are trying to get ahead of all this," Wallin said. "I don't think this is something we have to do; we could say this isn't our thing, we're just a rowing team.
"But in the wake of everything that's happened, it's really been slammed in our face that we're a lot more than just a rowing team to the community here. Especially to our athletes and our parents. We're trying to maybe be set a trend on this and say we're going to go and do more than just try to win."
Wallin said CRF Cares is not intended to be something that overshadows or detracts from the purpose of being a competitive sports team. "We're not going to make this a thing that slows us down, or takes away from the hard work that our athletes are doing, but we are going to think a little bit outside the box."
The immediate mission of the group, Wallin explained, is to support the team following the August losses, but the club wants it to remain in place and be there as a continuing system of support for kids experiencing a variety of pressures.
Wallin said the club is working to establish exactly what that will look like, and have already hired a new staff member who has training in outreach and counseling.
"These are some of the most competitive, driven young people in the country, and they have just been hit with an unbelievable set of circumstances. Most kids in this setting are never exposed to something like this.
"We want this to be a place where we understand the stresses that kids are under, and we want to support that. Whether it be because something happened in your personal life, or the just the general load of a kid who wants to be a great rower, and go to a great school, and be a great student."
Racing With Angels
"Before Jack, everyone was kind of shocked by the two previous deaths," said John Hauser, who went to the same high school as Newhall, and was his closet friend on the team.
Back of the CRF uni with the Angels design
"I wasn't close with Becca, but a lot of the girls on the girls' team were. We were all shocked, and hurting, but on the boys' team, we were not as close to what happened. Then when I found out about Jack, everything I saw going on with the girls' team just hit me. And then it was really, really difficult.
"It really made everyone here come closer," he said. "I and a bunch of other guys gathered at my house right after, and there was a lot of that going on for several weeks. We were just kind of not really saying much, but we just kind of sat together and were just present with each other.
"No one really knew what to do or say, but it was really helpful just to be with friends who knew each other and could relate. We were going through the same thing. Once school started, and rowing was picking up, it just wasn't the same, until we made it a motivation."
Added to the motivation were several fund-raising efforts. One in the name of the CRF Cares, which is being run by the club, one in the name of Jack Newhall being run by his family to purchase team equipment in Jack's name, in particular a new eight for the boys' team, and, one to help with the recovery of Greta Pearl.
But the greatest effort was being made by the athletes, who decided that winning the Head of the Hooch was a must. The race was being run on Jack Newhall's birthday, and Newhall's family was going to be there.
"At first, it was just hard to practice, and hard just to function. And then there was a shift where we started to use it as motivation," Hauser said. "We had the Hooch at the end of the fall, which was going to be on his birthday, and we needed to make a big shift. We were either just going to sit around and feel sad, or we could do something to honor Jack.
"So, we attacked every practice, and did not take anything for granted in terms of time on the water, time on the erg and it really paid off at the end of the day," Hauser said.
To help make the day as special as possible, the team designed a new race uni, one that carried the initials of the three missing athletes on the front, Newhall's name running up one side, and on the back a design of the team's blades that are shaped as angel wings.
One of the eight blades does not have that the CRF star on it. That represents Newhall's absence. And at the bottom is a coxswain's head set to honor Herbig. The unis were handed out by Newhall's parents, and to go with that, the parents group had commemorative hats, armbands, and bracelets made to also be worn.
While neither team ever won at the Hooch before, on that day they both did.
The girls were first.
"Before the race, we all knew it was going to be Jack's birthday, and that we were going to be wearing these unis that were provided for us. It was a very emotional time, and we just all knew that they don't get to be here - that we get to be here. That it's a privilege for us to race, it is a privilege for us to practice, and if Jack were there he would give everything he has. It was up to us to honor that work ethic and that passion that he has for our sport, and the passion we have for our sport. And just thinking we're lucky we get to be here."
"Before the race, we all knew it was going to be Jack's birthday, and that we were going to be wearing these unis that were provided for us," said Hornewer. "It was a very emotional time, and we just all knew that they don't get to be here - that we get to be here.
"That it's a privilege for us to race, it is a privilege for us to practice, and if Jack were there he would give everything he has. It was to us to honor that work ethic and that passion that he has for our sport, and the passion we have for our sport. And just thinking we're lucky we get to be here.
"During the race, our coxswain made several calls, saying this is for Becca, this is for Garrett, this is for Jack. We cannot give up, we can't let a single inch of water slip away from us, we need to just put it all out there, and that was definitely emotional," she said.
"I was getting emotional and tearing up while racing. You don't even really feel the pain in your muscles and your lungs. You feel the pain in your heart. That was definitely something we all felt. After the piece, we were crying and celebrating. We knew this was bigger than us."
Before the girls got off the water, the boys team was warming up in silence, said Hauser.
"We did not know the girls had won," he said. "And before we got hands on, Jack, for me personally, was all I could think about. We stretched out in silence, but wherever I was looking, I could see everyone was thinking the same thing.
"I would look at the guy next to me, and see Newhall on the side of his uni, or on my bracelet. Everywhere you would look you would see Newhall. So, I think that was all anyone was really thinking about. It was just complete focus on why we were here, and why we were doing this, and that his family is going to be watching and we didn't want to go home with anything but a medal.
"No one was really talking about what this meant, because everyone knew it, and we all kind of knew what we were doing," he said. "The race was one of the hardest I have ever done, and when it was over, you could see it on everyone's face, behind you, in front of you, it was on everyone's faces."
CRF mens' youth eight racing the Hooch
Hauser said the group was mostly focused on the technical aspects of the racing and did not have set calls to honor the missing athletes. "But in the last minute or so, that was all that was going through my head.
"And coming under the last bridge, someone shouted Newhall, really, really loud, and the boat just kind of immediately responded, and there was a pretty big burst throughout until the finish line."
Hauser said that winning has given a huge lift to the team, but they recognize that the grieving is not over.
"Coming off of Hooch was the greatest any of us have felt since before the summer. We really haven't done exceptionally well at that race before in the past and that really meant a lot to us that on his birthday we were able to do something special.
"I honestly think that every week it seems to get a little bit better, and I think Hooch was probably the biggest step in that process. We have a lot of new guys, and things seem to be OK for them, but for the guys that were really, really close to Jack, I don't think it's 100 percent yet,' he said.
"I don't really know what you can do to get it to 100 percent, I think it just takes a lot of time. It still just comes in waves, when you see something that reminds you of Jack. I think it just takes time."