For me, this regatta was, as Yogi Berra said, kind of like “Déjà vu all over again.” It was held in Camden, New Jersey, at the beloved Cooper River rowing venue. It’s actually a pretty nice body of water to race on – fairly well protected, especially on the opposite shore. It was hot and humid, but…it was New Jersey in August. Not going to get around that one unless some sort of miracle happens. Still, there was little to no wind, which was great.
I had been to this venue once before, in 2003, for US Rowing Club Nationals. That was a completely different experience (see blog about it). Everyone was young and eager and not very friendly. I was still pretty new to “away regattas,” and it was the first taste I had of a four-day, 2000-meter race, with at least one race a day, in the heat and humidity. I learned a hell of a lot that year, and Nationals really paid off for my fall training. I had the best Head season of my career, and I owe a lot of it to those grueling 2ks in mid-July in Camden.
This year could not have been more different. Back then, I was a scrappy young 43-year-old, rowing in my wife’s King single. I was the “old guy” for my group, the rest of whom were all in their early to mid-20s. But I held my own and won a silver in the Intermediate Light 2x with Brian Morabito. In the Light 1x, I made the semis but missed the final by 2 seconds to Mike Baker. This year, I was 49 (still am), going through an extremely painful divorce, which has been under way for a year and eight months (but who’s counting) – so no more King single – and I definitely feel older. Back then my son was 7 ½ and my daughter was almost 4 – this year, 13 ½ and almost 10. Back then I felt I had the world by the you-know-what. This year, I’ve been mired in Divorce Court Hell for a year and a half and am working through all the emotional aspects of the end of my marriage. That lovely event came on the heels of the sudden death of my brother in November 2006 and my father’s passing in September 2007. When I turned 49 in July, I wasn’t depressed about being old – I was grateful to be alive and healthy. Back then I was an ace in the single for my age group, and even some other age groups. This year, after a very kind invitation from the men’s sweep team, I hemmed and hawed due to lack of confidence.
However, earlier in the summer I was asked if I wanted a seat in Riverside’s eight, which was slated to compete in Cambridge Boat Club’s Centennial Regatta. I literally had not pulled on one oar for 20 years. Not since my days at CRI, where I learned to row and spent the first four years of my rowing career. For some reason, when asked about being in this boat, I said “Sure.” I was asked sometime in early June and completely forgot about it. Our one and only practice went very well. I had so much fun being in two seat – flying along (compared to a single), watching all the action, and hauling on this massive oar. My hands got a little blistered up from the new-fangled rubber handles, but I didn’t mind. We had a decent row and I had a blast.
The race was even more fun. The boat moved well, thanks to a great group of guys that included national teamers Sean Wolf and Pete Morelli. It was a head-style race (with a stake turn no less), and we easily passed the boats in front of us. We won our leg of the regatta by a few minutes, but to be the “winner” you had to win, on an age-handicapped basis, all of the events in the regatta. We joked that of course CBC would design the regatta so that they would be guaranteed to win. More important for me was that I no longer feared sweep rowing. I didn’t even mind having a cox, which is saying something.
So off I went, on what was sure to be a magical mystery tour. No more sardines in a rat-hole motel for me. I Pricelined a great deal in downtown Philly at the Marriott on 12th & Filbert. It was awesome – great room, great AC, great everything. Parking kind of sucked, but I figured out the “smart card” system.
The regatta itself was fantastic. I love the collegial feel at masters regattas. The athletes are either former Olympians who have nothing to prove, or they’re just mid-life hacks like me and are there to have fun. There is something about “regatta life” – young or old – that is extremely cool. No corporate routine. No sitting around wondering what you’re doing with your life. It is life with a singular purpose. Four days of racing, recovering, eating and sleeping; and dinners out, where you talk about…rowing.
Of the six events, with eight total races (made it to two of three finals), two races stand out in particular. The first was a Club D8+. We started off strong and were neck and neck with the lane next to us for the first 500 meters. As we went through the 500, Michelle Wedig, our cox, heard the other boat’s cox call a power 10 to make a move. She very calmly said, “We’re going to wait until they’re done with their 10 and then make our move.” It was an astute call. Their boat did not gain much, if anything, on us. Right after they had finished their 10, Michelle called ours and we took it up and stomped on the foot stretchers. We moved ahead definitively. There is something about that kind of a moment in a race… you get a serious adrenaline kick from a successful move, and you know you have only a little over 400 to go. A minute and a half or so. Your mind and body are now on board with keeping it up, maintaining the lead. So emboldened, we kept our margin through the sprint and finished first. I could not believe I had won a gold medal in an eight. It was a fantastic feeling.
The second memorable race was one in which we came in third in the final – the heavyweight D8+. These were some serious crews we were up against. I talked to Greg Benning, who stroked the Occoquan eight that won, and he confirmed that it was a boat full of Pedigrees, so I felt pretty good that we were only a few seconds behind them – considering what they looked like (enormous) and what we looked like (athletic, but definitely scrappy). We had a couple of Hessian mercenaries in our boat – I never really knew what their stories were, but they were big and I think they had done great things in their former lives.
All in all, a fantastic time. And most importantly, I’m now totally fired up for this year’s Head season. First race this Sunday…