On May 11, 2023, as I rolled up to the finish line and VIP area of the 84th Jefferson Dad Vail Regatta, after leaving my dad who had just had back surgery, in Washington D.C. (yeah, that's a whole other story), I felt jittery and I wasn't sure if it was the 10 soft pretzels that I had eaten at the 30th Street Station in Philly, or the pre-race jitters that you get when you're sitting at the starting line of a race. As I stepped out of Brad Negaard's SUV I soon realized that it was neither the pretzels nor the anticipation of the regatta that was making me jittery, it was literally the ground on which I was standing that was making me anxious.
For those of you that know me, you may recall that on June 10, 2000, I won the first race of the US Olympic Trials, in Camden County New Jersey, in the Single Scull, putting me on the precipice of becoming the third African-American, after Anita DeFrantz and Patricia Spratlen Etem, to qualify for a berth on the US Olympic Rowing Team. For those of you that don't know me, yeah, I'm that old! The following day, June 11, 2000, eight of nine boats qualified for the Sydney Olympic Games, I was not one of them. On the morning of June 12, 2000, or Groundhog Day in June as I like to call it, I sat on the precipice of making history, again, but 6:50.51 later, I had lost the trials and I had to do the hardest thing that I have ever done in my life, walk down a 40 foot dock and face my parents.
As a parent, I now understand that it is not your child's responsibility to make you happy, they do that by their very existence, but back then, all I wanted to do was make my parents proud and on that day I felt as though I had failed them by .33 of a second. Even after a hug by Jamie Koven, Don Smith, and Mike Teti, I still felt inadequate by .33 of a second, I wasn't enough by .33 of a second. It wasn't until Mike Teti said to me "Aquil, hold your head up, look down that dock. Those people down there still love you." that I was able to walk down the dock and give them a hug.
One might think that winning the USRowing National Championships in the Single Scull in 2002, would have exorcized the demons that haunted me in Camden. But no, for 21 years I did not row on the Cooper River, nor did I set foot in Camden County. So you may be wondering how it is that after all that time I came to be standing, almost exactly in the place where I had to do the hardest thing that I've ever done in my life? What was I thinking when I accepted the invitation from Brad Negaard to be a commentator, along with Joe Lennard, at the 84th Jefferson Dad Vail Regatta? The honest truth is that I thought the regatta was being held in Philly, and even once I realized that it was being held in Camden, it didn't occur to me that I would be back at the location where I had done the hardest thing that I have ever had to do in my life. My mind was like, "Nope, we ain't reliving that trauma!"
After about 10 steps, I froze. I felt it, the universe had overruled my mind and my body felt all that anxiety, it felt all of the sadness, disappointment, shame, and self doubt that I had felt 23 years earlier. For what felt like an eternity, but in reality was probably like 5 seconds, I stood in all of those raw emotions, with the experience of a father, an Olympian and a coach, and I was able to tell my body,"It's OK. You gave it your all that day, you failed and those people down there still love you."
Later that night, on the second floor of the Camden County Boathouse, which is amazing by the way, as I told my Olympic story to Camden County Commissioners Al Dyer and Virginia Betteridge, Commissioner Dyer said, "Well, you know it's not the same water, right?" To which I responded, "Is it .33 of a second faster?" We all laughed, and that was the first time that I had ever laughed about losing those trials, it was the first time that I felt real joy at having been a part of the 2000 Olympic Trials.
As the commentary for the regatta began on May 12th, 2023, I felt those jitters again, but this time it wasn't anxiety, it was excitement. It was the excitement of being a part of the 84th Jefferson Dad Vail Regatta, it was the excitement of not knowing how I was going to make nine hours of rowing exciting, informative and fun, it was the excitement of watching hundreds of young athletes chase their dream of becoming a champion, on a course that taught me that I could do hard things, and my hope for them was that they would know that they could also do hard things.