With imminent orders to shut down schools and athletic facilities, the first-year head coach of Saint Ignatius Crew, Connor Walters '09, sprung into action.
Facing the prospect of weeks without practice, Walters set about sending his rowers home with ergs (rowing machines).
So, with Ohio's stay-at-home order in effect, Saint Ignatius rowers have a way to stay engaged and healthy from the comfort of their own homes.
The idea of sending home rowing machines with students is not a new one. The crew coaching staff often sends rowers home with the machines over the summer to stay in shape. But they've never done it during the school year, until two weeks ago, when Governor Mike DeWine made the decision to close all Ohio schools and the OHSAA called for schools to shutter athletic facilities.
"When it became clear we were going to have to stop practicing together, we had the idea," Walters said. "We decided, 'As quickly as we can, we need to get rowing machines in the hands of every one of our guys.' That became the immediate thing we needed to do as a team. On Thursday at our last practice together, we ended a little early. We had the guys bring their cars to school or have their parents pick them up at school, instead of at the boathouse. We started signing out machines, one at a time."
The plan was solid, but not all student-athletes have cars, and some parents may not have vehicles large enough to fit an erg.
So, Walters decided to get creative.
"When we were explaining this to the team, I had said, 'We have to do this pretty quickly, because we don't know if anyone is going to be allowed on campus any time soon. You can pick them up at this time, at this time, or this time. If none of those times work, I swear to God I will get a school van and bring an erg to your house.' They started cheering and going crazy," Walters said. "We had to do a few deliveries and a few swap-outs with machines giving us an issue."
Just a couple of days later, Walters and the Wildcats held a 2k race.
Before the coronavirus caused cancellations, Walters and his coaching staff had planned to do a 2k race on the ergs on Saturday, March 14. In the rowing world, a 2k test is like running the mile. It's a test of your fitness and a way to compare yourself to other rowers. The name of the game is seeing how fast you can do it, and maybe to achieve a personal best.
"Even after our water practice got canceled and the ability for us to get together was taken away, I sent an email to the team sticking to the plan. We're asking you guys to do this on your own," Walters said. "We explained how to warm up for it and all that. But it's very challenging. Normally, we have the coxswains and other rowers standing and cheering for you to do as well as you can. That sort of help was taken away from us. However, the guys on this team are tough and resilient."
Indeed, the Wildcats banded together and got it done.
Patrick Miklus provided one of the many wonderful bright spots for the Wildcats during the 2k. The sophomore rower set a new personal best. Well, "set" is too modest a word: Shattered would be a better one to describe his huge effort.
"I decided I was going to do it at a friend's house because I knew going with someone faster than me would push me to do my best," said Miklus. "With great motivation from Ben Sommer '22 and Eamon Coyne '20, I was able to set a new personal record by 7 seconds. Despite practices being canceled, each member of the team pushed themselves to do their best with almost everyone setting a new personal record. I am looking forward to these next three weeks of intense erg training because I know the outcome is going to be great and I just may be able to set another personal record."
Watching the results flow in, Walters could not believe it.
His men stepped up with an incredible effort in the face of adversity.
"It was amazing to see the results come in. Some veteran guys with personal bests of 6-8 seconds, which is a big jump. Some freshmen improving 20-40 seconds," Walters said. "The guys responded to the challenge in an incredible way. I'm not surprised, because I know how hard they've been working. But it was very gratifying to see them perform at such a high level despite the challenges thrown their way."
Since then, Saint Ignatius Crew has continued to train and work hard each day.
As of now, the spring season is still on. The outbreak of COVID-19 has already delayed the start of the season. Now, the question is if the season will begin at all.
Either way, the Wildcats have right tools to stay in shape.
"This is critical. We are the rare team that has a machine that so closely simulates what we do all the time," Walters said. "We spent the last two months training on these. If we can get all of our guys to work out on these – if we do get back on the water – we will not have lost fitness. There's a chance we'll have improved, which is critical. We can coach the rowing stroke, but you can't coach improved fitness in a single practice, it's cumulative. Staying active and logging the workouts, there's no better thing to do if we can't be on the water."
The Saint Ignatius Crew coaching staff has stayed in touch with just about every member on the team.
Over 85% of the team has been logging workouts every day. The Wildcats are remaining very engaged and active during these times. Senior Eamon Coyne and the Wildcats want to remain ready just in case they do race this year.
"We know that all the other teams we race against are in the same situation as us. When Coach Walters told us that we had the opportunity to take an erg home, our team embraced the idea as a way to continue our training plan and stay ahead of our competitors," Coyne said. "Everyone took an erg home. It’s weird not being able to train with my teammates, but we stay in touch daily with each other and talk about how we have been. We hope that we can get back on the water soon, and show everyone all the hard work that we have put in by winning some races. But for now, back to the erg."
Walters is very impressed with how the team has handled the adversity, from the veteran team leaders down to the freshmen.
"This team has dealt with this incredibly well. They've been understanding when we've communicated the uncertainty," Walters said. "They've been continuing their efforts to do the work and send it in. They've supported each other. They've responded to the coaches. That's not something that comes naturally to every group or every kid. I've been very impressed with them and our staff of coaches. We got together as soon as we possibly could to lay out a plan to keep the kids working out and communicating. We could not have a better group of people to be part of Saint Ignatius Crew, in spite of everything."
So, what's next?
For now, the Wildcats can do nothing but train at home and pray for an opportunity to race. No one quite knows when the coronavirus will peak, so spring sports are in limbo. A decision on spring sports could come tomorrow, or in a month.
But in the meantime, the Wildcats will continue to grow and improve. And whatever the fate of the season, Walters will forever remember this group of men.
"I will always remember this team as the first as head coach, and everything we've had dealt our way this year. This is a gifted and very hard-working team, so much of which is a product of the culture and the foundation laid by Pat Connor '94," Walters said. "This is another phenomenal Saint Ignatius crew, one with tremendous capability. I hope to God that we get to see what we're capable of. In our 30+ years as a program, this year could be historic. I'm saying my prayers and keeping my fingers crossed. But even if we don't get that opportunity, I will know, and the team will know, that the work we put in was capable of achieving great things."