Late Saturday night, Columbia lightweight men's captain Ben Landis got a text message from his father telling him that he had flown to the United States from his home in Germany to see the Lions varsity eight IRA final on Mercer Lake Sunday morning.
The race schedule had been moved around from later in the day to the early morning because of predicted high winds. Landis had no way of knowing if his dad was going to be in the jammed crowd at the finish line.
What he didn't know, was that his father John had already been in the country ahead of time and was planning on surprising Landis after the race. "It was a secret," John Landis said. "We kept it a secret, so I could surprise him. Even the coach knew and kept it secret."
There was no real secret that Columbia was on a path to the national championship. The New York Sprints league university was already having an historic season. The varsity eight had lost only once, and the team captured the varsity eight title at Eastern Sprints, along with the team points trophy, a first.
But there were issues most outside of the team were not aware of. Stroke Alexandros Zisimidis had been feeling a twinge in his ribs for a few weeks before Sprits, and the twinge became a full-on stress fracture with the IRA training camp beginning.
There was even more cause not to add to the pressure of any of the group.
So, John Landis kept his secret and with his daughter, who had accompanied him on the trip. He stood on the banks of Mercer Lake and watched as Columbia completed their season and won the national championship. Then he and his daughter headed for the boatyard to spring the surprise.
That little feel good story got camera moment better when, as the Columbia crew was rowing past the crowd, Ben spotted his father in the crowd. Rather than wait to get to the boatyard, Landis dove out of the boat and swam toward shore.
"I was just really surprised to see him there. He flew all the way from Germany to see me so wanted to see him. He was happy that we won."
So was the entire Columbia group. The final three weeks of the season were not easy. With a rib injury like the one they were dealing with, coach Nich Lee Parker had to juggle lineups and alter practices.
And he had to prepare for contingencies. There was definitely a chance that Zisimidis was not going to be fit enough to race. Even if the freshman stroke man did not see it that way.
"No, I always knew that I was going to make it," Zisimidis said. "I feel very good, and very excited for the next three years. We have a very young boat, mainly freshmen in our boat. We have only one senior graduating," he said.
"We definitely didn't have the start that we wanted," Landis added. "We ended up being down on the start, and it was pretty rocky, a lot of waves. I'd say we got it back in our middle thousand. But, yeah, I'm thrilled."
Parker said his team had been preparing for the big moment for months. He had the lineup figured out by the end of March and it was a matter of finding the right amount of work and the right times to manage the injury and rest the crew.
"It was hard," Parker said. "We knew that we had a lot of training to do and we pushed the bodies pretty hard. There were quite a few people just nursing injuries the whole time, so every day I was constantly evaluating, just to make sure we were doing the right things, and to back off when we needed to.
"We got the guys together and we talked about it when we needed to. We needed to push the intensity on some of the workouts, we needed to back off on how many pieces we were doing, and we needed to get faster speed on shorter pieces. That helped to stay in touch with the top speed when they needed to, and still be able to get the training to where they can prepare to work well here," he said.
"The whole season is just about developing some good foundation for speed," Parker said. "Like that middle 1500 of the race, making sure we knew what we needed to do, how we reset if we lost the speed, how we make sure we preserve it.
"Getting into the sprint, finding some championships speed. I think we had a better time preparing for the sprints, and this one was about preserving it."
But, were their doubts that had to be managed as well?
"Always," Parker said. "Are we going to be able to respond to this? If that thought comes in, you have to immediately put that thought out. You go in and think, let’s see, what can we do, what can’t we do, what’s our control here, and how do we make sure the team knows that everything that we can control has been done, so that when they are just sitting on the start line, you have this sense that everything that we could have done, or prepare for this race, has been done," he said.
"And that leads to a lot of confidence and confidence like that leads to a great outcome. "I'm so very proud of this team."
And so was the happy father.
"I was so touched when I saw him jump in the water," said John Landis. "I was running to the boatyard to meet him and they went by, and he wasn't in the boat. And then I looked and saw him swimming in. It was a little bit emotional. I would have cried if they lost, and I cried when they won."
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