A mere six days before races were raced and the presentation of the revered and coveted Stotesbury medals and trophies earned and completed, whether or not the regatta would go off at all was on the minds of all involved. Recent rains coupled with a truly dire weather forecast looked almost certain to render the Schuylkill River unsafe at best and maybe even unrowable; even local college teams were training in other locations already.
Long, complex, and heroic story short, the Stotesbury Cup organizer and volunteer team, along with their referees, sponsors, vendors, local boathouses, participating teams, timers, dock providers, and importantly their neighbors and new host Cooper River picked up the world's largest high school rowing regatta from the shores of the Schuylkill, crossed the Delaware, and put it all back up again, all in 36 hours.
Tent city on the Cooper River
Upon arriving for the time trials on Friday morning, some expected a wholly makeshift, bare bones, just-get-the-racing-done-and-run operation; instead they found nearly a mile of athlete tents, parent tents, sponsor and vendor tents, trailers, food stands, various facilities, grandstands, and more - the most abundant setup we have ever seen on the Cooper River. Simply put, they moved the whole darn Stotesbury Cup, with all the bells and whistles to the Cooper River.
According to Stotesbury director of operations Bonnie Mueller, the move tapped into truly decades of regatta experience of nearly everyone you have ever seen running high school regattas on the Schuylkill River for years, and even decades in some cases.
Still the best pile of hardware in scholastic rowing
Then once it was all done and in place, even with the mud and rain, the Stotesbury people did their Stotesbury thing, staying focused on the racing and the athletes, moving their best-in-class trophy presentations into the vendor tent without sacrificing the personal touch they have had for years - with the significant bonus that almost all the medal recipients were in the tent at the same time, making for one of the loudest and most enthusiastic trophy runs ever as crews cheered, sang team songs, hugged, laughed and cried, all in one place and at the same time.
Montclair took the Boys Senior Eight
On to the Racing: Boys Eight
row2k asked Montclair boys coach Jeremy Michalitsianos how the Montclair crews dealt with the uncertainty and change of this year's Stotesbury, and he changed the subject instantly.
"First of all, I can't thank the organizers enough for what they did," he said. "It is unreal. Anyone who criticizes what they did needs their head examined. We're here today, everybody's raced, everyone's had fun. What they did was amazing.
"But for our program, and most programs are the same, we go out in all conditions," he continued. "So every time the conditions got bad, we laughed and said, 'well guys, we've always rowed in these conditions or those conditions. We always go out, don't we? So we had the wind, then the rain, then the lightning which we don't row in fortunately - but we train for all conditions.
All smiles for Montclair on the (indoor) podium
"So yesterday we had some good times trials in the headwind, and I thought we earned our spot because we trained for that. We train for difficult conditions, and if it happens to be still out there, we're going to be okay."
With six boats entered in the regatta and six medals, the Montclair boys and girls programs had a pretty good day in both the hardware and the 'team efficiency' department.
"As we tried to build up the team, we also tried to set a culture of trying to win, telling them what they can do rather than telling them what they can't do," Michalitsianos said. "Then we try to keep building on the previous year, try to improve every year, and try to set goals that are achievable with what we've got. We're not a big team; we're a public high school, and all the kids live in town. Nobody has to do the sport, and we're very well supported by the school, but there are so many competitive sports at Montclair High School that we have to make it into a team that people want to come and row for.
"On the girls side we have 19 athletes, and won two golds and a silver in the eight; on the boys side we have 24 returning boys, and they all won medals today. The whole team is so committed. They'll do extra training. They are a special group, and the senior class, boys and girls, are amazing kids, and that filters through to the younger kids. When they go, there are big shoes to fill, and we hope that the next class that comes up step in those big shoes. They're certainly trying!"
National Cathedral took the Girls Senior Eight
The National Cathedral girls eight completed a three-peat this year, but it would have been seen as an upset by anyone following the season - except perhaps the athletes in the crew. The squad had been having a tough year, notably a fourth place finish in a four-boat grand final at the WMIRA regatta on May 6. A couple personnel changes and a few weeks later, the crew put themselves in front at the biggest high school regatta anywhere.
Like many crews this spring, the NCS squad faced a lot of challenges getting solid training in.
Hardware and smiles for NCS
"We had a very challenging season this year, because on the Potomac River it was a volatile spring," NCS girls coach Greg King said. "We had a number of floods and lots of wind, and it wasn't until the last week of April that we had five straight practices on the water, which was tough.
"So we were off to a little bit of a slow start, and we were doing okay, but at our local championship (the WMIRA), we got fourth, which was a pretty disappointing result for us.
"They took that loss and responded perfectly to find the next gear and get back on track," he said, attributing the improvement to a close-knit team.
"They are an incredibly connected group of human beings; they care about each other immensely," King said. "Part of our team philosophy is based on the concept of gratitude and opportunity, and they knew they had an opportunity to do something really special. They were wholly convinced after the WMIRA performance that they were capable of doing this, and they kept their heads down and powered through, and just got all the work done that they needed to do."
It was close racing in the Boys and Girls Singles
On Saturday, excellent conditions (save for the mud everywhere, though most folks were sporting boots) arrived on the Cooper, resulting in a few riveting races, especially in both the girls and boys singles, both of which saw comeback rows that were decided in the final few strokes. Winner of the Girls Single was Emma Dockray of Grimsby High School in Canada.
Emma Dockray of Grimsby, Girls Senior Singles winner
"After I was passed in the middle of the race, I wasn't sure if that was okay with me, so I figured I would go with her," Dockray said. "With about 10 strokes to go I saw I had drawn almost even, and I thought I had come too far not to throw everything at it."
After the race Dockray was in obvious distress, which she said was a brew of exhaustion and emotion all mixed together. "It was a really hard race," Dockray said in a direct but loaded manner.
Crossing the Delaware
Six days earlier, on Monday morning, a phone meeting was organized by the group of regatta directors Bonnie Mueller, Erika McCormick, and Margaret Meigs, chief ref Dennis Smith, and Commodore Paul Horvat to review the situation on the Schuylkill, and the notion of moving the regatta was, well, floated. A number of folks were on the call, and at that point, although no decision was made, people started working on options immediately - in some cases while the call was still underway as the first texts to Jamie Stack on the Cooper River went out.
On Monday night another phone meeting was called, with everyone involved having a little bit more information, but no decision was made; that would wait until Tuesday midday. A few folks did a stealth site visit on Tuesday morning with Stack, and then it was decision time.
"At the end of the Monday night call, a couple things became clear to us," Stotesbury director of operations Bonnie Mueller said. "Number one was what our priorities were, and that had always been clear to us: safety first, competition second, and everything else after that. We were fortunate because we were guided by those long established priorities.
"By the end of that call it was also clear to us that by Tuesday afternoon we would have enough information that we could likely be in a position to say we might be able to still row this regatta on the Schuylkill, but that we could run the regatta on the Cooper as long as we did extraordinarily heroic things - if we focused and stuck to those priorities we could do it, if we made the decision at that time. It became clear that we couldn't wait for the river to give us an answer. We were going to have to make a hard decision without actually having the facts, because we couldn't predict for sure that the river was going to rise, and the river was going to flow at a rate that we would be able to ensure safety and fair competition."
The Stotes awards moved indoors for 2018
On Tuesday midday it was decided to move; within an hour the first regatta bulletin announcing the move went out, and from there Mueller made a spreadsheet with 36 rows outlining what had to happen hour by hour in the ensuing 36 hours before trailers started to arrive and crews started to launch for practice.
Heaps went into it, and Mueller said that the trust that exists within the tight-knit group was the single most important factor in play.
"The decision to empower different people, and let them do what they know best was so critical; trusting that they would do anything they could to make this happen," Mueller said.
The sponsor people talked to sponsors large and small about different tent setups, the trailer parking people created a parking map, the timing company and referees started conferring on and establishing schedule changes, RowAmerica showed up with a crane to move their new docks that were supposed to debut at Stotesbury, the tent planners came up with a plan, the course people installed a start tower, Philadelphia teams that had not set up trailering plans were brought together to get everyone in the area to New Jersey. Mueller emphasized repeatedly that Cooper River's Jamie Stack was the pivot point for everything.
"I have to say I got emotional when I thought 'Oh my goodness. we did this,' because it was the most impressive display of teamwork and coordination, and absolute dedication that I have ever seen in my entire life."
When it was over, Mueller and team were looking ahead to their next meeting, the regularly scheduled Schuylkill Navy meeting that occurs on the third Monday of every month, all year long. In addition to putting on a fairly sizeable regatta it was those meetings that created the unity of mission and purpose that made moving a giant regatta possible.
"Every third Monday of the month for 160 years, everyone files into the same room, and they talk about ways to do that - promote amateurism on the river, and secure collective action together that no one club can do on their own."
On tonight's agenda: the dredging of the river, no small beans. Mueller barely flinched at the prospect of getting back to work.
"I will not long remember how much sleep I got this week, how hard together we had to work as a team; we will all forget that," Mueller said. "But the students who won today will never forget that. We were willing to do that for them. We were not willing to quit for them."