photos courtesy of Todd Kennett, unless otherwise noted
John "Jack" Reynolds Robinson, a senior at Cornell and Commodore of the Heavyweight Crew, passed away at his home on February 2, 2022 after an 11-year battle with osteo sarcoma.
photo by Susan Potter
This past Sunday, the entire Cornell Heavyweight team travelled to Boston for Jack's memorial service. More than 100 of Jack's former teammates were among the over 500 in attendance at Trinity Church in Copley Square, to include most of the Cornell HWT Classes of 2019, 2020, and 2021, as well as many of Jack's teammates from CRI.
The current team made the trip in a bus specially embossed with photos of their fallen teammate: the owner of Ithaca-based charter service Swarthout Coaches, John Miskulin, had heard about Jack's passing and surprised the team with the gesture in honor of Jack's leadership.
"He was so moved he arranged for the bus to be decorated for Jack," said Cornell Head Coach Todd Kennett, who was touched by the gesture. "It was almost like a pilgrimage for our leader. The guys were stunned, and just seeing it was nothing less than breath taking for all of us."
The Cornell coaches have renamed the team's annual Ackerman Award for Jack; it recognizes "spirit, camaraderie, and competitiveness" and will now be called the Ackerman-Robinson Award. The team also dedicated a trophy in his memory—the JRR333 Cup—engraved with the words which they believe describe Jack, and his impact on their lives, the best. The cup sits in the boatbay, "so we can see him every time we launch," said Kennett.
After Jack's passing in February, Coach Kennett wrote a moving elegy about his senior captain which he agreed to let us excerpt here:
"Ode to Jack Robinson"
Senior Commodore Jack Robinson '22 has passed away. He had been battling osteo sarcoma for the past 11 years and his entire Cornell career.
Jack grew up just outside of Boston, MA, and attended Milton Academy. He was introduced to rowing at CRI in Boston. There he became a star cox, helping them to medal at nationals several times. He was the captain and a major award winner for his contributions to the team. He was part of the JR National Team Selection camp.
I first met him in the summer of 2017. My first memory of Jack was him touring Cornell and meeting me at the boathouse. He was really tall for a cox, and I was concerned about him outgrowing the position. I mentioned this to him, and I can still remember his curt quick response that his body would not be growing further, and weight would not be a problem. It was my first experience with Jack the warrior: a position which would help him become a major contributor to our team.
There was no doubt in our minds Jack was a very good cox, and with a little more development he would be a very good candidate to compete for the Varsity boat. He entered Cornell as an Econ and Govt major in the College of Arts and Sciences. As a freshman, he was in the mix with several really good coxswains who were upperclassman. One of those coxswains was truly exceptional.
It was interesting to me, because Jack acknowledged that he was in competition with him, but instead of taking him head on, he instead focused on his classmates, and worked with them for the future rather than try to gain a seat with the older guys. Jack was already seeing the big picture, realizing that unseating an upperclassman is not easy, and knew he could be far more useful, purposeful, and develop the best chance for his own success by making those in his class the best they could be for the team, and for a later year. His ability to see this was amazing to me.
Jack, leading a pre-race boat meeting
Jack was a rowing junkie. He was early to practice, late to leave, and always taking care of his teammates that wanted to work. In 2019-2020, his sophomore year, it was becoming obvious there was going to be a major battle for the seats on the team and Jack was going to be one of the major players. As we moved to the early spring, we were rowing in February and Jack was in the mix. It was unclear as to where exactly everything was going to fall, but Jack had done an amazing job in that the guys trusted him a lot. Then, of course, COVID hit and took the season away.
This is where Jack really began to shine. Despite the constant oppression of COVID rules, Jack was the one who seemed to push the most. As a coaching staff, we had our hands tied by hour limitations, masks, cleaning, etc, but Jack was there, barking orders, and commanding the moment so many times. Our Captain at that point was graduating in early Dec, and Jack was the Junior Class Captain. He would be thrust into the spotlight. I think he was born for the job, or maybe he had just been waiting his entire life for that moment, but there was doubt: this team was his, and it was going to rise again if he had anything to say about it.
Like all captains, Jack had a learning curve. He always loved the guys, seeing the best in all of them, but there is potential and then there is reality. During the COVID year, Jack got his real education as a Captain. He learned that nothing replaces real hard work. Not even all the good positive thinking in the world. When we actually got to race, and our speed was not as fast as we thought and hoped, it suddenly made sense. We needed to work. Jack was quick to help again see the whole picture and to help make the new standard, and try to correct what two semi-lost seasons were doing to this team.
The fall semester of his Senior year was truly amazing. Jack could see the full picture. He was coxing really well: he could come talk to me and get my thoughts and ideas, communicate them and motivate the team with them, and also help to spur the team to a standard that most of them had never approached.
2021 HOCR Champ 4+
All of that paid off when he coxed the 4+ at the Charles that would end up 4th in the Champ 4, second amongst the college entries by just a small amount. It was Jack that got the guys to admit they could do a lot more. The ball was rolling in the right direction for us. Jack was excelling in all aspects as he headed the team. The team was finally surging ahead, and academically he was pushing over a 3.5 GPA in Arts and Sciences.
The problem was his health was rolling the wrong way.
His entire Cornell career, Jack had cancer. I knew he had it, but my job is not to be nice to people; it is to try to bring the best out in people and make fast boats. I felt horrible seeing how much pain he was in, and how he would just deal with it. Some mornings he would carry the oars out as the guys were warming up on the ergs, and then he would lie down on the bay floor, to "collect" himself as he would tell me. "These new damn drugs are killing me Coach," would be his simple statement, and off he would go into the boat, or into the launch.
If we were coaching the guys in pairs, he and I would trade comments, and work off each other on how to proceed. We were a team. The whole time I knew he was hurting, but he would not let us know, and I would not treat him differently: I needed a great cox, and he wanted that job, but he wanted to earn it fair and square and not be pitied for being sick.
Jack was so serious about rowing, even with his illness. This was the killer question he would ask: "Coach, I think I have to miss a practice if that is ok?" "Why Jack?" I would ask him. "Well, because I need to get a small surgery tomorrow to take a lump out of somewhere. It will be simple and I promise to only miss a day or two." Damn. I am a varsity coach, and guys will complain about blisters, or a sore this or that, and here is a kid with lumps, and bumps, and things breaking, asking for a practice or two off to save his life? You get the point…we were playing in a different universe. I would shake my head internally wanting to just hug the kid, but just reply, "Jack do what you need to, but be safe and take the right amount of time, do not just rush back for us."
When a coxswain gets really good—mastering the safety of the crew, steering, technique, motivation, and awareness of the coach and other coxswains—it gets really fun to be me. It simply means I get to coach: he can have the boat in a good position for me and I can focus on the guys. A cox at that level is absorbing what I am saying and applying it as well, all the while being aware of the other boats, and the surroundings. Often I can start to talk, and the cox can complete the sentence or the drill. Jack and I were there. My assistant coaches are each a leg that I depend on, but Jack was my right arm. We would talk on the phone, or in the bay before and after practice, just to figure out our next move. It was so much fun. There is nothing better than when the whole machine is working.
Through Jack's work this year, he was the guy who took the stretching sessions, the extra erg sessions, pushing so many of the guys to make that extra sacrifice to do more. Coaches can yell, jump up and down, plead, and beg to try to get a crew to get the job done, but peer pressure is so much more important. When the athletes decide they want to make it happen, then things really start to go. Jack was the spark. He was making things happen.
By late this fall, however, just after the Charles, Jack was having some trouble. He was stoic in covering it up, but he was hurting. Jack had never been able to take advantage of our Florida training trip because of his health or COVID. As we approached the trip, he called me and was so optimistic about being there. "I think I can make it," was uttered many times. As we got close, though, he began to doubt himself and finally he told me he was pretty sick and might not be there. This was my biggest moment of alarm.
Eventually, Jack told me things were bad, and his parents talked to me then about how this year's Florida trip was Jack's "make-a-wish" moment.
Imagine that. 21 years old, captain of the HWT crew at Cornell and your make-a-wish moment, your final bucket list item, is to attend the Florida training trip with your team.
I could write a book about that trip. The thoughts, decisions, and emotions were off the charts. While it should have been exhausting, it served to only energize me. When I have an athlete as good as Jack—one who is giving me his best—I know I need to be on my best to give him the experience he deserves and desires. My athletes motivate me as much as I motivate them. Now, make it a "make-a-wish" moment and things got super-charged.
One of Jack's last practices in Florida, 2022.
Jack was able to row for several days. The trip was taking a toll on his health. Jack made me aware of when his last row would be. The night before I told him to make the first varsity line up of 2022, and tell me the workout. He set the line up, and went off to bed. Before he left, he made a very few members of the crew aware he was pretty sick. That group met. It was a very hard meeting, but the basic message was this: "Our job was not to show Jack pity, or try to sooth or comfort him, but rather make the best boat speed we possibly can. That will be what will make him the happiest. That is our job."
That row was simply magical. The warm up started well—very focused—yet there were some funny jokes as well. The crew was being themselves, with a great mission. As we got into the workout, it went to a new level. Jack was on his game. He could barely walk to get into the boat. He was sitting on the dock before we launched because he was so tired, but in that darn boat he was all about it. Jack did not have the cleanest mouth when he was in the heat of battle, and he was raging on that afternoon! The water was bumpy, the wind was howling, but we had some good stretches, and—when they went on the power—it was there! Jack was all smiles at the end of each piece: it was one of the best line ups we have put together in a long time.
We came off the water, and the team brought the boat down to shoulders our traditional way, on Jack's call. Jack yelled the best he could: "CORNELL, CORNELL" . . . and the team roared, "BMA," with the heart and soul of a thousand lions.
The JRR333 Cup
A few of the guys would see Jack alive one more time, the Sunday before he passed. He sat with us and told us rowing stories. The fight was still in him: he dreamed and thought of speed, but his body would not. In his mother's words, he simply did not take the next breath several days later, and he died peacefully with his family.
Jack never stopped fighting, to be the best, to try to make us win, and I am so sad, but relieved, he has some peace after all those years of not showing it, of dealing with the pain. It amazes me how a person can do that with mind over matter.
Jack will continue to live with me and our program. Over my 34 years of rowing, I know you only run into a character like Jack a few times, someone who has an obstacle to overcome, and does it ten times over. "Miracle," "Rudy," "Remember the Titans," "Rookie," "Boys in the Boat" are all stories about the same thing: humble beginnings that make a run at being great. Jack Robinson is that character. We are renaming Cornell's Ackerman Award, given for spirit, camaraderie, and competitiveness on the Heavyweight team, for Jack. Both of these men were similar in their own time, each helping to keep the tradition and excellence alive within Cornell Crew and the Ackerman-Robinson Award will now remember them both.