Years of 'good efforts' rewarded at one of college rowing's top events
This article was co-written by Bill and Billy Pinamont '17, father and son. In the first half, Bill provides a Bison parent's perspective of his son's four years of men's crew training, regattas and impressions leading up to the American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) National Championship on May 27-28. In the second half, Billy recounts his oarsman experiences, insights, fears and reflections beginning just before the ACRA time trials Saturday morning and culminating with the A Final race. Billy was a four-year crew-team rower who is currently working toward a master's in anatomy and physiology at Penn State University Milton S. Hershey College of Medicine.
"Bucknell With the Silver Medals!" The race just ended, and my wife, Bernadette, and I could now barely talk, because we were cheering so loudly and hysterically for the Bucknell men's crew team. The roar of the crowd at the finish was deafening. The announcer for the American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) National Championship exclaimed, "Certainly the closest finish I think I've seen. Bucknell came with a monstrouslast-second charge. It does look like Santa Barbara got the win and then Bucknell with the silver medals and then Virginia wrapping it up in third."
1. 6:23.505 University of California, Santa Barbara 2. 6:25.537 Bucknell University 3. 6:25.609 University of Virginia 4. 6:26.673 University of Michigan 5. 6:28.797 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 6. 6:33.957 University of California, Irvine 7. 6:39.041 University of Delaware 8. 6:44.216 US Military Academy West Point
The crowd was 10 to 20 people deep along the shore of Lake Lanier Olympic Park, and the stands were full of spectators. Mixed into the throng were the Bucknell team and their families (most wearing orange), laughing, cheering and high-fiving. In the last 30 seconds of the race, the hundreds of other competitors and their fans seemed to have adopted Bucknell. Everyone seemed happy about the result, with the exception of the Virginia and Michigan teams. Fans from Vanderbilt, Cincinnati and other schools congratulated Bucknell on the incredible race. One asked, "Where is Bucknell? It is a small school, right?" Another asked, "How do you recruit rowers?" while someone else exclaimed, "I've never seen such a close exciting race!" Another commented, "That was nothing like anything I had ever experienced before!"
As the Bucknell crew rowed toward the dock to get their medals the announcer commented:
Coming into the dock right now is Bucknell, they will be collecting the silver medals, but I believe they also should get a medal for the absolutely most ridiculous, last-chance charge. That was insane! Congratulations to Bucknell for collecting their silver medals.
The nine boys in the Bucknell boat had done it — Nick Barpoulis '17, David Dayya '20, Sam Jubb '17, Dillon LaFata '18, John Leasure '19, Henry Leonardi '18, Ryan McSherry '19, Billy Pinamont '17 and Andrew Stonnington '19. They beat Michigan and Virginia. No odds-maker in Vegas would have ever picked Bucknell to beat both Michigan and Virginia.
So what's the big deal? Well, Bucknell had not medaled in the First Varsity Eight race since 2012 and had only medaled twice in this race since it was established.This was a classic David versus Goliath, small- versus big-school story with the significance of Harry Potter defeating Lord Voldemort or Luke Skywalker making the one in a million shot to destroy the Death Star.
So how did two "soccer parents" get here, watching rowing in Gainesville, Ga.? It started with a text message from our son, Billy, just after he completed BuckWild first-year orientation in August 2013:
Billy:"I met some guys who are going to join the men's crew team, would you and mom support me if I decided to join?"
Dad: "Of course, go for it."
I had no idea of the roller coaster ride that Bernadette, our son and I had just gotten onto. It was akin to riding the Kingda Ka coaster in New Jersey, the tallest in the world. Billy was not the ideal 6-foot-4, 190-pound oarsman. I thought, at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, he might be able to hold his own — but he never rowed and knows nothing about rowing!
45 Novice Walk-ons At Family Weekend 2013, we visited Billy and went to the Bucknell boathouse. There were about 45 first-year walk-ons who were rowing in numerous boats during practice. Billy informed us that the team practiced six days a week, at least two hours a day on the water or on the ergometer, would weight train two to three days a week, and was to compete at several races in the fall. I could tell he was "all-in" for the crew team.
By the spring, the 45 novices became 20. At Knecht Cup, an invitational regatta at Lake Mercer, N.J., Billy was not part of the novice eight that placed first and won gold. Instead, he rowed in the second varsity eight boat. He was not sure what to make of this change but was very happy when, only days later, and quite unexpectedly, four of the oarsmen in the novice eight quit, just hours before the team was to pack up the boats and head to the Dad Vail regatta in Philadelphia. As a result, a novice four boat was entered and competed instead. The novice four, second and first varsity eight boats all had "good efforts" at Dad Vail. A day later, the team competed at the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Rowing Championship at Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Mass., and again the novice four and both eights had "good efforts" but did not medal as only the top three finishers in the A Finals receive medals in rowing.
The highlight of the 2013–14 season was ACRA Nationals and the second varsity eight's third-place finish, earning the boat a bronze medal, behind Michigan (first) and Virginia (second) and ahead of UC Santa Barbara in fourth. Interestingly, this order of finish would be the exact opposite three years later. The second varsity eight's bronze finish was the top of the Kingda Ka roller coaster, after a wild and unpredictable first-year experience. The first varsity eight finished fifth in the A Final, 10 seconds behind first-place Michigan. What began as a group of 45 novice oarsmen was down to seven returning sophomores.
To add to the upheaval, after ACRA we learned that the head coach, Al Monte, was headed to Dartmouth to be an assistant coach and that Dan Wolleben, the longtime assistant coach for the women's team, would take over as head coach of the men's team.
Earning a Seat in the First Varsity Eight In fall 2014, we learned all about seat racing, the process in which teammates row against each other in competition for a place in a particular boat. Billy was up against some experienced upper classmen for the first varsity eight. He was surprised to learn that he earned a seat in the first varsity boat two days before the Head of the Charles regatta in Boston in mid-October. He fought the rest of the season to keep it.
In spring 2015, the team again had "good efforts" at Knecht Cup, Dad Vail and ECAC but earned no medals. At ACRA, during the first-heat race for the first varsity eight, Billy's rig for his oar broke at about 200 meters, making it impossible to row. We watched him sit motionless with his oar perched to the side just above the water while the other seven oarsmen carried on. The boat finished fourth and was sent to the additional qualifying heat. In part because of the extra race, Bucknell's first varsity eight finished almost 20 seconds behindfirst-place Michigan.
Training: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer Two years had gone by, Billy was balancing biology labs, Spanish, philosophy and rowing. Holiday breaks were cut short because of the team's winter trip to Orlando — seven days of on-water, three workouts a day (triples) training to prepare for the spring season. For spring break the team went on a training trip to Lake Anna State Park in northwestern Virginia — far from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. There, they stayed in rustic cabins, cooked meals for one another and did triples on the water, sometimes in temperatures near freezing with winds gusting up to 20 miles per hour.
Back at Bucknell, they started training on the Susquehanna River as early in the season as possible. They joked about avoiding the ice flow, frozen hands (as no self-respecting rower wears gloves) and rowing during snow squalls. For two summers, Billy took classes on campus, trained, lifted and competed in two distance runs to improve his endurance. His last summer, he trained in between his work at his medical research internship. And, like the seniors before him, senior week was spent on campus training for ACRA with the team.
More 'Good Efforts' but Farther Behind Michagan For the 2015–2016 season the first varsity eight continued to have "good efforts" at Head of the Charles, Knecht Cup, Dad Vail, the National Invitational Rowing Championship (NIRC, formerly the ECAC) and ACRA but no medals. That year at ACRA the first varsity eight finished 25 seconds behind first-place Michigan. After the races, I could see in Billy's face that he was disappointed and very frustrated, and he told me, "I just want our boat to medal at ACRA, dad. I don't care about anything else." He was angry. I knew Billy had worked very hard that year to try to lead the team to a better result but it did not happen.
This was the all-time low point on the Kingda Ka roller coaster of Bucknell rowing. The ride seemed broken.
The end-of-season awards dinner is held on Sunday night every year, after ACRA, in Gainesville. A wonderful evening, it celebrates the team's accomplishments over the previous year. This was our third trip to ACRA and the third year-end dinner. Coach Wolleben paid tribute to many of the rowers, acknowledging their individual accomplishments, and concluded his remarks with the statement clearly defining the team's objective for the upcoming year: "Make no mistake about it, the goal is to beat Michigan!"
Everyone in the room cheered! However, the little voice in my head questioned, "Was it even possible to beat Michigan — Big Blue? In its tweets to followers, Michigan proclaimed, "Ten years of dominance at ACRA." Michigan has 28,300 undergraduates from which to recruit rowers; Bucknell has 3,400. Michigan has 75 athletes on the men's rowing team; Bucknell has 39. After watching them for three years, the Michigan team even looks intimidating, and that is because Big Blue rowers are big!
Over the years, there has been no shortage of strong challengers to Michigan's dominance. Virginia, UC Santa Barbara, UNC Chapel Hill, Grand Valley State University, West Point, UC Irvine, Delaware, Purdue, Boston College, Washington State and Notre Dame all made the A Finals and challenged the University of Michigan. None beat Big Blue in the first varsity eight category between 2013 and 2016. The last time they were defeated was in the A Final in 2012, when Virginia took first, Bucknell, second, and Michigan, third. That 2012 Bucknell crew has achieved a mythical status, and current teams watch the video of that great race at the beginning of every season for inspiration. That night at dinner, I thought of the 2012 team and hoped that Wolleben could help these young men do their best for next season. I also thought that I might be losing faith. And what was Billy thinking after three hard years? He seemed as determined as ever.
Incredible Potential The fall 2016 season started well. At the Head of the Charles the first varsity eight finished 12th in the Collegiate Eight division. A senior, Billy was very optimistic, saying, "Dad, this boat is fast, the fastest I've been in so far. It has incredible potential." However, the spring season presented many challenges.
At Knecht Cup, windy weather on the first day caused the lake to have two- to three-foot swells with whitecaps. These were the worst conditions that I had ever seen the team compete in. The boat made the B Final and had another "good effort" finish but no medals. A few weeks later, at NIRC the boat had a great race but came up two-tenths of a second short of qualifying for the A Final. Billy was losing patience with the team. He was running out of time. Graduation was only weeks away, and he told me that after that race he asked the crew to "never forget the bitterness of how this feels. It hurts, so never forget it." The Bucknell first varsity eight went on to win the Petite Final at NIRC.
After the race, Wolleben told me he was encouraged because the last Bucknell first varsity eight boat to medal at ACRA, in 2012, also only won the Petite Final that year at ECAC/NIRC, and this could be a good sign. I listened carefully but thought to myself, "To come close and fall just short every time, with numerous 'good efforts' over the past three years, seemed like an inescapable pattern for Bucknell." We were hoping something would change, and about this time is when we learned about the "double bucket."
The Double Bucket
My observation: If Bucknell has a secret weapon, it is the head coach. Wolleben is to rowing what Einstein is to advanced mathematics — a genius! Dan told me that he declared one practice as "buckets day." He made the first varsity oarsmen practice with 12 riggers on the boat, a normal boat has 8 riggers. The rowers struggled the entire practice. Shortly after that, he changed the boat to a "double bucket" configuration. His analysis of each rower's strengths led him to the conclusion that this would help the boat go faster, smoother, straighter and with more control. My thought at the time: Seems a little unconventional. I hope it works. I asked Billy, "How's the double bucket working out?"
He answered: "It works, dad; the boat is faster, and we have more control." This illustrations shows a standard eight boat configuration and a double bucket. Notice the alternating oars on the first boat as contrasted to the two oars on the same side of the boat for seats seven-six and five-four in the second boat. The double bucket is an unusual configuration for an eight boat, and is rarely used by any crew.
Probably, the most important lesson for the crew team was that Dan was willing to take a risk and try something new to see if the change would improve the boat's performance. If it failed, he probably would have been criticized for the decision. I believe Einstein is credited for saying: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result." Dan did not do the same thing over and over again. He definitely changed it up with the double bucket.
Heart Bernadette and I made the trip to ACRA Nationals for the fourth and final time. We got to the hotel late, and Billy stopped by our room to say hello. I asked him, "What were the chances of making it to medals?" He was much more reflective than in the past, and he told us: "I have rowed in the first varsity eight with at least six different crews over the past three years. Unlike any other eight-man crew combination, this team is special. Everyone has worked very, very hard. It has the heart to do very well. On paper, we show average height, weight and experience, but this team has the un-coachable variable that is often overlooked: heart. I think we have a very good chance to make it to medals."
Billy never said anything like this before any of the team's previous races. It was a good sign.
Saturday morning, we were up early and headed over to Lake Lanier for time trials. As I drove with Bernadette to the lake, I had to wait to turn out of the parking lot for a brand-new, sparkling clean Purdue University coach bus filled with athletes making a wide turn, I thought, "That must be nice," as Bucknell always traveled in numerous rented minivans to get to this event.
Time Trials This was the first year in its history that ACRA held time trials. This was because of a record 38 entries for the first varsity eight category and a record number of entries from across the country for all of the events. It is important to note the distinction between ACRA and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Championship, where the scholarship-rich rowing powerhouses of Harvard, Washington, Yale and Princeton compete. None of rowers competing at ACRA receives athletic scholarships for rowing. Bucknell describes the club varsity program for men's crew as providing "athletes with many of the same training and competitive opportunities as varsity athletics, but requires that the team be self-funding."
Bernadette and I got to the lake at about 7:30 a.m. It was a little after 8 a.m. when the first boats started coming across the finish line. The Bucknell boat appeared to be rowing strong, and we cheered. For some reason, the results were not being announced or posted on the website. We both quietly worried about what was going on. We would have to ask Billy as soon as we saw him at the hotel. What follows is his perspective on the events of ACRA weekend 2017.
A Bucknell Oarsman's Perspective Saturday morning, I woke up before the alarm. The other three rowers in the room were still sleeping. We needed to get moving. Time trials were only a few hours away. We were all still a little slow from the long drive down, but the first varsity eight crew got to Olympic Park just as the sun began to rise.
I knew that the top eight times would advance to the semifinals, and the remainder of the field would have to compete that afternoon for the last spots in repechage, a trial heat in which first-round losers are given another chance to qualify for the semifinals. Later that day, the weather forecast called for 90 degrees with strong windy conditions, so we all resolved that the team needed to avoid repechage at all costs. An extra race would diminish the boat's strength. That meant we must execute the race plan to be in the top eight. The time trials race would probably determine our success or failure at ACRA.
The water had a little chop from the wind and wakes from the official's boats. We launched and prepared for our race. The start seemed to occur immediately, and we were on. I thought our rowing was sloppy. We had patches of bad strokes, and the wake affected our boat and others'. We crossed the line, and I had an immediate sense of anger and disappointment. I convinced myself we had not rowed well enough or gone fast enough to be in the top eight. I believed that we needed to prepare for repechage.
Then we waited. My teammates pulled up the ACRA results page on their phones. Someone would refresh the page almost every five minutes, and we kept waiting. We left the course to go back to the hotel, still waiting. For what felt like hours we sat in the breakfast area, wondering if we would have to go back to the lake to compete again that day. My parents asked if I knew what was going on, and I did not. Rumors circled about protests because of the wakes and chop. We wondered how it would change results, if at all. Then slowly, I began to grow more optimistic. I had given up refreshing the page and resigned myself to eating a mound of tater tots. I was starving.
Then I got a text: We had finished sixth. I watched as all my teammates hit refresh and confirmed the news. We felt elation, relief and surprise. One thing became clear; we all started to believe that we had a shot at medaling. Turns out, my pessimism was wrong. In the time trials, our boat's heart was strong. We had a much better than "good effort," and were only five seconds behind Michigan.
Semifinals, Sunday Morning Semifinals were at 10 a.m. Sunday after a two-hour storm delay. Fortunately for our crew, the extra time gave us more time to wake up, loosen up and relax together. I knew this would be the biggest test of our entire season. The top four boats would advance to the A Final. We were up against several very good crews in this race, including Virginia, UC Irvine, Delaware, Notre Dame and Orange Coast. If we did not have a complete race, we could come up just short again, like in the NIRCs earlier in the year.
We had a better start, and found ourselves rowing with the lead four crews, slightly separated from the rest of the field. We were next to a very strong Delaware crew and knew if we stayed with them, we would put ourselves in a good position. Then Leonardi, our coxswain, called for a sprint, and we raised the rate. I felt the surge pulse through the entire boat, and with 300 meters to go, we edged out Delaware to finish third.
For the last two years, we made the B Final, and believe me, A Final felt much better. I did not realize it then, but this sprint further demonstrated the heart of this crew, it was a huge confidence boost and foreshadowed what would happen in the A Final. It was another, much better than "good effort" row.
The A Final There was a two-hour turnaround to the A Final in the afternoon and I knew the race was going to challenge every oarsman's conditioning. We went back to the hotel and took short ice baths to try to get as much lactic acid out of our muscles as possible. No one ate. The coffee, adrenaline and nerves were enough for my stomach. Then it was time to go.
For me, four years of training, mental preparation, planning with the crew and visualizing races all came down to this one race. All of us in the boat were excited. We posted the third fastest time in the semifinals that morning and were in a good position to do something special. I saw fire in everyone's eyes. We knew what it was going to take, and we were ready to go after it and test ourselves. Because we edged out Delaware in the semifinals, we were placed in lane seven next to North Carolina (lane eight) and Michigan (lane six). This was the race I had been waiting for all year. The rowing "experts" of ACRA had evaluated Bucknell as a 10 seed before the competition. We had already proved them wrong by making the A Final.
Michigan and Virginia are the class teams of ACRA, with depth, discipline and speed. It was a welcome opportunity to test our crew against programs of that caliber. This would be my last race, along with my fellow seniors Barpoulis and Jubb. I had watched, LaFata, Stonnington, Dayya, McSherry and Leasure put everything into training over the past two weeks and all season. I knew none of us would hold back or leave any regrets on the water today. I believed our eight Bison oarsmen were ready.
Before the race, adrenaline took over. The crew was amped. We got warmed up, were ready to go and then, delay. The regatta was running behind and would be starting the A Final race late. This was the equivalent of a runner warming up for a race only to have to stand around for 10 minutes. Muscles got tense, and we got anxious; minds started to wander. The exhaustion of the morning race started to creep in as we sat waiting in the boat on the water.
Our crew had a great sense of humor, and we kept our attitude lighthearted. Staying loose and mentally engaged before the race seemed to help us row faster. Two of our boat's riggers and oars were squeaking loudly, and the guys had a little fun with the noise-making after we were in the starting position. A few of the Michigan oarsman seemed irritated by our irreverence, but we ignored them. I looked at each oarsman in Big Blue's boat, one at a time, and for some reason they did not look so big today. I knew we were ready. And we were the only boat in the A Final configured with a double bucket, something of an abomination by some rowing standards. For that matter, ours was the only boat in the entire regatta, men's or women's, configured as double bucket. One bucket is normal, but two is just weird, and somehow, it befitted our lighthearted, quirky team.
We knew the race would be fast. I looked up and saw the storm clouds passing quickly above, and I felt the strong winds on my back. We would be rowing directly into the wind just as we had done for years on the Susquehanna River. There was some chop to the water. Our ability to handle the conditions physically and mentally might play a huge role — I was glad wehad rowed through the biggest chop ever at Knecht Cup earlier this season. I turned to McSherry in the bow seat and said, "We're going to have to do some dancing back here during the race, so do what you have to, even if that means not rowing full slide. Keep the guys in front of us engaged as best we can in these conditions." We entered the blocks, I took one last deep breath, could feel my heart pounding, then I watched and listened for the start of my last ACRA race.
The good thing about lane seven was that we were right next to Michigan. The bad thing about lane seven was that we could not really see any of the crews on the other side of the course. Virginia was out of my view in lane four. But our race was all about us and Big Blue in lane six. I thought of Wolleben's comment at dinner a year ago: "Make no mistake about it; our goal is to beat Michigan." The Michigan first varsity eight racing shell is named Those who stay. For years I have watched and marveled at the power of the Michigan rowing credo: "Those who stay become champions." Every year, Michigan has been the champion, and dominated ACRA. They are a big school with a big program, with big oarsmen, and along with Virginia, the only school to win the A Final at ACRA. We knew UC Santa Barbara had a great year and would have a shot at beating the defending champion. The stage was set. All the crews were in place.
The Start The start was blisteringly fast. I felt all eight oarsmen surge as the flag dropped and felt our stroke rate climb to about 45 strokes per minute (spm). We were off the line with Michigan, and we knew if we stayed with them we would have a chance. As we shifted down into our base rate, I could feel the energy of the crew as we hovered around 37 to 38 spm instead of our normal 36. Then it stayed there, high and aggressive without hesitation from any man in the crew. We approached the 750-meter mark into the race and the pain of sustaining a 38 began to set in.
There comes a time in every race where the crew has to make the mental decision to push and keep going through all the pain and fatigue. And this race was no different, except this time when that moment came, there was no hesitation. By 1,000 meters, we had separated ourselves from the rest of the field and were with Michigan, Virginia and UC Santa Barbara. North Carolina remained just out of contact with us, trying to make a push into us and Michigan, but we kept them a few seats away. Instead of a true middle move around the 1,000-meter mark, our crew stayed steady and held other crews off as best we could until the shift up at 750 meters to go.
The Last 750 Meters
At 750 meters, we shifted up, found just enough speed and began to creep further away from North Carolina and move up on Big Blue. I saw our coxswain subtly wave goodbye to North Carolina. I could not believe his confidence, but it showed me how much he believed in our boat. Every muscle in my body was screaming with pain, but that did not matter. I could see from the corner of my eye that we had a slight edge over Michigan, maybe a foot. I could hear Michigan's oars slapping on the choppy water, I thought they might be struggling with the conditions. Our boat seemed smooth in the water. For the first time in my rowing career, I watched as the buoy color changed to signal our final 500 meters.
Four years of rowing now came down to about 90 more seconds.
It was time. We had to go all out in the face of exhaustion. We had to go for it and we did. We took the rate up even higher and started aggressively after the last 50 strokes to fight to be in the medals. I was expecting Michigan to respond to our move with a sprint of its own. I believed it was coming. I'd watched them do it before to other crews. I heard our call to sprint and felt the boat go up another two beats. The extra speed came and then a little more separation from Big Blue. Fear came over me. I did not want to come up short, I thought of NIRCs and being out of it because of two-tenths of a second, and I knew a strong Michigan sprint could happen at any moment. At this point in the race, my consciousness was fading as lactic acid was taking over every muscle in my body. Oarsmen talk about blacking out during races, and it is true. I only remember snapshots of the final 300 or so meters. Then I saw the red buoys for 250 meters to go. I saw Michigan siting one seat behind us. It was like a dream. I heard the roar of the crowd build as we approached the finish line.
More! Then I yelled one simple word, a word that our coach yelled at us during impossible training days, a continuous challenge to each oarsman: "More!" Our rate jumped four beats, and the boat took off. We took a seat on Michigan, and I yelled again. Then another seat came, and I heard our coxswain loose his word and scream "Holy Shit! You're doing it; you're doing it!" One more yell was all we needed. The last 100 meters, I counted down from 10; the final 10 strokes of my ACRA career. (Dan later estimated that our rate was 45 or 46 spm during our sprint — godlike at this point in a race.) It felt like we blasted across the finish line! This was a rocket powered "good effort" with phenomenal heart!
I watched the finish line buoy fly past my port side, and one of the greatest feelings of my life came over me. All the pain and exhaustion was gone, replaced by euphoria. I threw my oar forward and grabbed LaFata's shoulders in a giant embrace. We celebrated like a crew celebrates when they win gold, and we all thought we had won bronze. We could see we finished ahead of Michigan and behind UC Santa Barbara, but we assumed Virginia had taken second.
To our team, this was a bigger "win" than any of us expected. I could not sit still. I stood up and climbed over the rowers ahead of me to the front of the boat and hugged my fellow seniors, Barpoulis and Jubb. When I got back to my seat, LaFata worried out loud to me: "Billy be careful. We don't want to be disqualified for excessive celebration." So I sat down and soaked in the moment. In the background, the crowd continued to cheer from the shore. The joy and pain in the boat, as well as every emotion I could ever dream of when visualizing these moments, was flooding through me and everyone in the boat. McSherry grabbed me and gave me a hug.
Three Long Years As we sat in the boat I realized my unique perspective: I was the only one who had been in the first varsity boat for three long years. In my first-year we won bronze in the second varsity eight and I watched the first varsity eight finish 10 seconds behind Michigan. I was in the boats in 2015 and 2016, when we finished 20 and 25 seconds behind Michigan, not even qualifying for the A Final. I thought of all the seat races and the other determined rowers on our team who were in and out of the boat in the last three years: Vinnik, Colagrossi, Pallotta, Marth, Ragland and others, all of whom pushed me to be better and work harder. I had experienced years of "good efforts" but no medals, which made this success so much more gratifying. I could not believe what we had done, I put my head in my hands, and tears welled up in my eyes. I felt McSherry grab my shoulders again. This was why I rowed — for the team competition on the water. This is what mattered the most to me, the eight oarsmen with heart and giving it our absolute best. Today we medaled.
Seventy-Three One-Hundredths of a Second As we waited in line to pull up to the dock to get our medals, there was a delay, and we were told we had to wait. I feared the worst. Were we disqualified for something? My exuberance? Then finally, the announcement: "Bucknell wins silver." We not only beat Michigan, but we also beat Virginia by seventy-three one-hundredths of a second. My first thought was, "How?" We had no idea where Virginia was, because we could not see them during the race. Even Leonardi, our coxswain, was surprised to learn that we had beaten Virginia. The final results were announced, and another chorus of cheers came from the crowd. I was overcome with emotion again. I slapped the water, felt the joy of the crew and did not know what to do with myself. The Kingda Ka rollercoaster exhilaration had reached its peak, and the ride came to a screeching halt. WOW, what a ride! It was over, and I was overjoyed and astonished that we had taken second!
When Wolleben came over to the boat area to give us our medals, I will never forget the smile and look of pride on his face. Words cannot describe my feelings as he put that silver medal over my head. I thought of Al Monte and Scott Waters, my coaches from my first year — the men who had taught me how to row — and Kyle Dowd, who corrected every little detail of my stroke over the last three years. I felt so grateful to have had the chance to learn from them.
As we walked toward the Bucknell tent, we were greeted with a standing ovation. I locked eyes with my dad for the first time after the race. There was something special about this moment. I dropped my bags and embraced him. I am bigger and taller than he is, but he lifted me clear into the air, and I buried my head in his shoulder, overcome with emotion, tears welling up again in my eyes. I was hugging him as hard as I could, and he hugged me right back giving me the biggest bear hug ever, and I whispered to him, "We did it dad. We did it." And he said, "I knew you guys could do it. I am so proud of you, and I love you." Then I turned to my adoring mom and hugged her gently, saying, "I love you, mom." She said, "I love you too, Billy. Great job. We are so proud of you and the team."
Everyone was elated, and the conversations were buzzing. I heard:
Jubb: "When we were at 250 meters to go I could hear the chants, 'Jubb, Jubb, Jubb, Jub-a-dub' from my teammates, and it made me want to row even harder. That was incredible".
Leonardi: "That was the greatest race I have ever been involved in."
McSherry: "I don't remember any of the last 250 meters."
LaFata. "It was awesome — just unbelievable! All I could hear was Billy shouting for 'more!' "
Stonnington just grinned and grinned. Barpoulis and Leasure were all smiles too. Dayya, the first-year student, just took it all in.
Awards Banquet Later that night, the team, parents and friends thoroughly enjoyed the 2017 end-of-season dinner and awards banquet. What an incredible finish for a roller coaster season and four-year ride for me. We were all very proud of our absolutely most ridiculous, last-chance charge that was insane, which gave us our most important award, the silver medal.
I will savor the sweetness of this seventy-three one-hundredths of a second win for the rest of my life. The lesson of the NIRCs was well learned, and we did not come up tenths of a second short, instead we were hundredths of a second ahead.
It was also great to read the June 2017 ROW2K cMax National Rankings for men's varsity eights and see Bucknell ranked 30th in the nation, albeit still behind 28th Virginia and 29th Michigan. I guess cMax missed the "monstrous charge" at the finish!
And yes, we were "the first losers," as Dale Earnhardt or Ricky Bobby might say, but it was the most amazing "victory" I have ever experienced, and my teammates and I feel like the biggest winners.
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