This week's row2k Interview is with Cornell Lightweight senior Zacharia Thurston. We chat with Thurston on team culture, faith, environmental sustainability, and more.
row2k - How did you get your start in rowing?
Zacharia Thurston - I began my novice season of rowing in the erg room at Arch City Rowing Club. The encouragement of a swim coach and friend helped me find this unusual sport for young people in Ohio. I signed up never having seen an erg before. Then getting into a boat it became a little more clear - a chance to be competitive with myself while racing collectively as a ‘team.’ Those were unique days being a novice, but I just remember having a lot of fun with it. It wasn’t too long before I transferred to Westerville Crew. From there, I was hooked. The old rickety boats or rusty weights we had to train with never mattered to me. I learned that I liked to work hard, and that this destination was the place for me.
What helped me along the way were the inspiring guys ahead of my class who were good role models. They were also getting looks from top college rowing programs. Strong coaches like Matt Chase and Julio Sanchez helped to shape me and my growth within the sport of rowing. These coaches (especially Coach Sanchez) introduced a more intense training program, which led to more confidence in racing. Coach Sanchez encouraged us to take risks even in the face of uncertainty. As a lightweight racing with heavyweights, this was tough for me originally, but if I wanted to be competitive, I had to put myself out there. Coach Sanchez, who I respected, helped me get past these limits, especially in the erg room. It was exactly what I needed.
row2k - How did you decide to attend Cornell?
Zacharia Thurston - Recruiting was an interesting and exciting experience; looking back I definitely had spells of imposter syndrome. Talking to Coach Kerber, I thought, "A person of this caliber and experience would be talking to a lot of other guys, other top guys from teams that are a lot better than mine would ever be."
My official visit to Cornell is what locked it in for me; seeing what this program was about in contrast to the rest of the league. What impressed me most was the culture Kerber, Brumsted, and the team established; you get a sense immediately that everyone is on the same page and everyone is bought in. The urgency and practicality in the details of the sport was something new to me. More importantly, everyone was there to bring each other up. Everyone, even the 1V guys, made me feel welcome as a newcomer.
A lot harkened back to the mentality Coach Matt Chase brought to Westerville, which was, “You don’t need anything special to be successful, you just have to keep your head down and work hard. Really, really hard.” This phrase echoed in my head when I was in the launch watching the team. Underneath this very raw commitment was a bond. That moment, combined with a conversation with Patrick LeCorgne, really helped me. Patrick rowed at Westerville, but I missed him by about a year. He stroked Cornell’s Varsity 8+ in 2017. His experience, his humility, and his transition from Westerville to the top of the C150 was very inspiring.
row2k - As a senior, how would you describe the culture of your program, and what is your role within it?
Zacharia Thurston - Team cohesion and culture do hold our attention. As seniors, we are modeling the way in these uncharted waters in post-pandemic times, and we are new to leading. When I look back to my freshman year, I appreciated having good and trustworthy relationships with older members of the team. They were family and they made it easy to aspire to be like them. I am trying to provide the same experience to guys on the team now, creating a high trust team environment versus a low trust team.
We also feel a major responsibility to the classes before us who missed out on two seasons, especially their senior seasons. With this, our team continues to prioritize unity like a family with a flat org structure where everybody contributes to the success of the team. Nobody cares who gets the credit for our success, which is what I like best. We are all brothers and sisters, and each of us is seeking constant improvement in ourselves via good habits, earning it, and having one clear purpose. That purpose is committing ourselves to the big picture, the work we do or don’t do today affects the team tomorrow. I want to look back on my days at the boathouse and have no regrets; to know that the seniors did everything to contribute to the program and squeeze the most out of each moment I can from being here.
row2k - What do you like most about the sport of rowing?
Zacharia Thurston - There are two important pillars in my life. One is rowing, and the other one is my religion. Each of these play off of the other. I would consider myself to be a devout Muslim. One thing that Islam teaches you is that you must commit yourself entirely to God and to continually strive for the greater good, for both yourself (your soul) and others around you (spreading kindness and giving charitably to others and the needy). I find my religion and rowing intersect in many ways.
The first is this aspect I just mentioned, working towards something greater than yourself. In the sport of rowing, the victory of the medals stand is a feeling like no other, and you take hundreds of strokes to prepare for a single second of a race. The work you put in now, the mentality you bring to practice, is for the benefit of the team, and critical for the big output in May/June. Everything is always team first. However, there is also an individual aspect. Just as my religion teaches me to be charitable to others, I am always thinking of how I can be charitable for the sake of my team, and the best way for me to do that is to 1.) maintain my health and optimize my performance, and 2.) as an upperclassman, become a guide for the younger athletes on the squad, just as older guys did for me when I was an underclassman.
Secondly is the aspect of genuine commitment equaling success. The Islamic faith requires that its followers pray 5 times a day without fail and requires healthy adults to fast the month of Ramadan, where you may not drink or eat from dawn until sunset. Fasting allows you to gain a better perspective on what the needy and deprived go through every day, and it is also one of the greatest forms of worship. I maintain these requirements, and while it may look burdensome or difficult to some, there’s not a question or doubt in my mind that I will ever give it up. I’m simply committed to it. If my prayer falls in the middle of an AT workout, I will leave the room during the rest interval to pray, putting my forehead on the ground with sweat dripping into my eyes, and come back before the next interval begins.
Training while fasting for Ramadan is also not easy, but it is necessary for what I have decided to commit myself to. In rowing, the same mentality applies. The commitment you have to the sport, the hours of training you put in, and the constant attention to detail, allows anyone to become successful in rowing. At the collegiate level, one workout that you miss is an opportunity for your opponent to get a leg up on you. At the end of the day, my team and I want to pull up to the start line knowing with full confidence that we put in the work. Committing to the end goal, with the necessary hardships involved. This is what I love about rowing. The aspect of working towards something greater than yourself and the personal commitment that it truly takes to attain it.
row2k - What has been your most memorable race and why?
Zacharia Thurston - My most memorable race was Eastern Sprints in 2019. It was my freshman spring on the crew. I was in 4 seat of the 2nd Varsity with 3 other freshmen sitting in the middle of the boat. Of course, we were very competitive with our 1st Varsity that year. It was extremely nerve-wracking and exciting to be moving head-to-head with a crew who would, a few weeks down the road, become National Champions. We had a lot of great leaders in the boat, and each in their own way helped glue that 8 into something truly special. Each dual race, I had confidence knowing that everyone in the boat did what they needed to do to prepare. It was a high trust crew, the guy in front of me would lay his life down for me, just as I would for him. At the end of my first year at Cornell, our 2nd Varsity would cross the finish line in first-place at Eastern Sprints and holding the historic Cornell Trophy was super special. I had hardly won any races in high school and looking down at that medal that Coach Brumsted placed over my head meant the world to me. It was truly a great feeling.
row2k - What are some of your interests away from the boathouse?
Zacharia Thurston - I am a part of an on-campus organization called C.U.S.D. (Cornell University Sustainable Design). I am on the Ithaca Carbon Neutrality team, which works closely with Ithaca’s sustainability office, intending to help Ithaca to reach net-zero emissions by 2030. The team I work on supplies modeling data and cost analysis information for building retrofits to reduce the city's energy expenditure. We are also working on sub-projects for sustainable transportation and renewable energy integration, which I have also had the opportunity to play a part in.
It has been a great experience contributing to this cutting-edge transition for the community. I get to work with people in a variety of majors (C.S., Engineering, Architecture, Stats, etc), who all have the same goal of achieving net-zero emissions in the city. Our project was recently reported on by CNBC and the Washington Post, as Ithaca was the first U.S. city to confirm a full decarbonization plan for each of its buildings.
With all of this going on (school, rowing, and C.U.S.D.), things can get busy. I try my best just to be a normal college kid. Sometimes the team and I will go watch hockey games on campus if we aren’t too busy. Or, we might settle on a casual hang out on “The Compound” which is just a group of houses we live in off-campus. I have a good group of friends outside of rowing as well.
Casually, I am a fan of jazz, and I enjoy cycling too. A few people on the squad are quite fast, and I think it is an endurance sport I will stay with after I graduate. I have also got into learning how to cook over Covid, it’s a great skill to have.
row2k - What are you studying at Cornell, and do you have any plans for after graduation?
Zacharia Thurston - I am majoring in Environmental Sustainability with a concentration in Policy and Governance. I will consider applying to an environmental law program for graduate school in the years to come. My current plan is follow-through from recent J.P. Morgan Chase internships that focus on new lines of business in sustainability initiatives for the firm. With a year leave from school due to Covid, I may have a 5th year lined up. This will ensure that I stay involved with rowing to some extent. Considering that I started rowing when I was 13, it’s been a significant part of my life up to this point. I look forward to continuing rowing, either casually for my general health/competitive nature or coaching at a smaller program part-time.