That afternoon I was completely aware of the true value of rowing at Ithaca and the wonderful environment both Coach Dan Robinson and Coach Becky Robinson have created for the crew program. That environment is sometimes obscured by the anxiety of performing and competing at such a level. But their strong marriage and the presence of their children, Eli and Connor, provide the team with a sense of family, love, and support. Combine this with the enthusiasm and help of novice men's coach Ward Romer, and the IC boathouse becomes a place where we can all leave egos aside and be a part of a spectacular team.
In a matter of that one hour in Sacramento I witnessed 18 women change both physically and mentally. They appeared taller, walking with an air of professional assurance. Even the immature statements scribbled by a rival team in chalk in front of their boat did not faze them. They burned away thoughts of a negative performance and looked ahead toward the finish line. They all knew what they had to do.
At the start of the repechage for the NCAA finals I stood on the shoreline alongside a large mass of parents and family who had traveled many miles to provide support for these young women. We cheered the junior varsity eight's come-from-behind sprint to beat both Trinity College and the United States Coast Guard Academy's varsity boats. The junior varsity eight qualified for the grand final -- the first time in NCAA history a JV eight had done so. With the varsity eight winning its heat, Ithaca had national championship honors within our sight.
Rowing is the ultimate teamwork. Nine bodies and minds work together to blend two separate aspects of the stroke. The first is the meticulous balance of the recovery end, where bodies are moving rhythmically forward up the slide in order to reach the second stage, which is known as the drive. Both are defined by the catch and the finish, the entrance and exit into the water, and by the ability of each individual rower to trust the others. Unlike in other sports, there are no time-outs or substitutions; there is no opportunity to switch in other rowers. Typically, each boat on a squad develops its own subculture, and rarely do these groups interact with one another as a team. They are more like individual little entities, racing against other opponents within their respective events, without the camaraderie and support of teammates from the other boats.
On Saturday the Ithaca women blew this stereotype out of the water. The rowers from the two boats warmed up together with a breathing and visualization exercise. Then they launched together and practice started in front of the other competitors. When the race began, they intimidated the field by executing echoed movements. Senior coxswains Catie Gloo of the varsity eight and Jess Doolittle of the junior varsity bellowed out motivating commands and phrases at precisely the same time for all their opponents to hear. With a massive sprint at the end, the varsity eight's bow passed Smith College for a one-foot lead at the finish line. The junior varsity eight finished seven seconds behind in last place, securing the victory for Ithaca's overall team honors.
There was a flurry of screams and applause, laughter and tears on the shore as Gloo walked up the deck of the boat and embraced each of her rowers. And with photographers scrambling and journalists pushing me out of the way, I watched the women splash water into the air and celebrate by the shores of Lake Notoma. They were champions; they had crossed the threshold of the peak. More important, it seems to me, this group of athletes had discovered the potential that resided inside them and each other, and the astounding, heart-filling result that can occur when people come together to achieve a common dream.
While we were derigging our eights, a writer for a local newspaper approached assistant coach Aaron Benson and asked him if anyone on the team had overcome any sort of barriers to get to this point. He was looking for an inspiring story. Aaron replied no. "We are a team," he said. "We got here as a team, and we succeeded as a team."
And what a team! To the coaches and rowers and all who came before, to all who supported and contributed to this national championship team, I say thank you! It was a thrill to be part of it all.
Jeffrey Morris '04 graduated with a degree in writing. He was a coxswain and commodore for the men's crew team and is an assistant coach for the women's crew team.