CAMDEN, Nj - It is hard to make history at Saint Ignatius. The sheer number of student-athletes that have suited up in the blue and gold means that it is nearly impossible to achieve something never done before. So, when something like that does happen, it is truly remarkable.
The Wildcat Navy boarded the bus bound for Camden, New Jersey, in the early hours of the morning this past Thursday. With each passing hour on the Pennsylvania turnpike, the anticipation of the weekend ahead increased dramatically.
This would be their first time competing at the National Championships for many of the rowers on the bus. It did not matter if they had been there before; each young man had the same goal in mind, to qualify for the grand final and bring home a medal.
Upon arriving at Cooper River Park Race Course, all four boats that qualified for the National regatta were able to get on the water for some light practice. Four eight-man boats are the most the team has ever taken to Nationals; this was the first piece of history-making throughout the weekend.
The rest of the night involved a team meal in Philadelphia and a meeting with Head Rowing Coach Connor Walters '09 to preview the weekend ahead.
"The team made history just by bringing four eights to this regatta, by bringing a 2nd Varsity 8 for the first time," says Walters. "But even the performances by each of these boats was just remarkable."
The following day was full of action on the water, with all four Wildcat heat races occurring before 12:30 p.m.
The results from Friday were as follows: Freshman 8 - first place (4:57.7), Junior 8 - first place (4:51.7), 2nd Varsity 8 - first place (4:39.7), Varsity 8 - first place (4:33.4).
On Saturday morning, all four boats qualified for the semifinal races with their first-place finishes. While Friday was a successful day on the water, the Wildcats were not satisfied.
After a mid-afternoon yoga session led by Assistant Coach Russ Eckles back at the hotel, the team had several hours to rest and recover before dinner. The original plan was to visit the nearby Independence Hall, but storm warnings resulted in coaches advising the team to stay indoors.
Later in the evening, the team arrived at Olive Garden for their final dinner together, where everyone shared in conversation, trivia games, and, of course, breadsticks.
The first race for the Wildcats on Friday morning was the Freshmen 8 at 8:40 a.m. With the early start to the day, the team was advised to get to bed even earlier than usual due to the possibility of two races on Friday.
The freshmen started the day off strong for the Cats with a second-place finish, good enough to guarantee a chance at a medal in the grand final.
Following the Freshmen 8, it was the Junior 8 race. The Junior 8 can be manned by anyone who is not a senior. Also, an additional rule for Nationals stated that no rower could row in more than one race. This resulted in a Wildcat Junior 8 that looked vastly different from the one that took first at the Midwest regatta two weeks prior.
The Junior 8 finished fourth in their semifinal, just missing out on a spot in the grand final. The crew had a great race and ended up in seventh overall but were ultimately outmatched by the stronger boats.
Then, just 20 minutes later, it was time for the 2nd Varsity 8 to hit the water for their semifinal. The 2V looked strong and comfortably finished in third place, becoming the second Saint Ignatius boat to qualify for the grand finals.
The Varsity 8 race was the final one of the morning for the Wildcats before the finals got underway throughout the afternoon. There were some rumors around the regatta about the speed of the Wildcat Varsity 8 and if they were a possible dark horse contender in the grand final.
"What helped our boat become faster throughout spring was not taking ourselves too seriously," says senior captain Ben Sommer. "We found that our best rowing happened when we stayed relaxed, so making sure we didn't get into any arguments and kept it fun helped us find lots of speed this season.
It was a solid semifinal race for the V8 as they finished third with a strong push in the last 100 meters. That push allowed them to pull ahead into third place and qualify for the grand finals about four hours later.
When the morning semifinals were finished and the midday break began, three out of four Wildcat boats were safely in the final, eager to leave Camden with a medal around their neck.
The grand final races were scheduled with one Saint Ignatius boat competing each hour. Just as the Freshmen 8 were first off in the morning, they were first off in the afternoon.
There may not have been a crew present at Nationals that wanted to win a medal more than the Saint Ignatius Freshmen 8. They accomplished just that by taking bronze in the grand final with a time of 4:48.01. They were only the second boat in program history to medal in the event. It was an extremely tight race, as most finals were, and the Freshmen 8 gave it everything they had in the tank.
For these young men, what they accomplished in just 12 short months is remarkable. Roughly a year prior, they graduated from grade school with little to no familiarity with rowing. Now, they display a National Championship bronze medal and have their entire rowing career still on the horizon.
The 2nd Varsity 8 earned their own medal just an hour later, finishing in the bronze medal position. After becoming the first 2V in program history to compete at Nationals, they also became the first to medal.
"After coming across the finish line, I had tears of joy," senior coxswain Wil Antionius says, "It was an unforgettable experience to medal at a national regatta."
After the incredible performance of the 2V, the Varsity 8 began to prepare for their final. The Varsity 8 grand final is often viewed as the "must-see" race due to the sheer speed and expertise that the boats bring to the course.
The Saint Ignatius Varsity 8 crew had finished each of their last two races feeling like there was still speed to be found. The statement was the same from bow to stern; they had not had their best race yet.
When word reached the spectators at the finish line that the Varsity 8 final had begun, the anticipation grew immense. By the time the boats came into clear view, Saint Ignatius was out in front of the pack. The Wildcats raced to an incredible start but were eventually chased down and overtaken by the top three boats in the last 100 meters.
It was quickly the best race of the weekend; every boat finished mere seconds before one another. The Wildcats finished fourth but, in the process, also laid down the best time of the season and the best time in program history with a 4:21.4.
"This past weekend's success is immeasurable to the amount of work and dedication to achieve these results," says senior captain Pat Miklus. "It feels great to know that you played a crucial role in being the fastest program in school history and it makes you wonder just how fast we can go as we set the foundation for possibly an even more excellent team next year."
While the Junior 8 and Varsity 8 did not medal, they still played a significant role in the successes enjoyed by the Freshmen 8 and 2nd Varsity crews. Even the rowers who did not make the trip to the east coast share in the historic weekend just the same.
Every rower at every practice was constantly competing with one another, urging their teammates to get faster on the water with each passing day. Many sports fans boast football as the ultimate team sport; however, Crew may also have a stake in that claim. As proof, look no further than the tears that rowers shed as they walked their boats back to the trailer for the final time this spring.
During the Wildcats' football dynasty of the early 1990s, Chuck Kyle '69 redefined how to win. Now the Wildcat Navy is doing the same thing. The crew program has seen an incredible rise in prominence over the past season. In just the 2022 spring season, The Men of the Cuyahoga River won the Rustbelt Championship, sent the most eights in history to the National Championship Regatta and beat Midwest powerhouse New Trier. As if that was not enough, the team saw two of its boats capture national bronze medals.
"Where we have the team right now is where I don't know if we believed we could ever get there," says Walters. "We're just very excited to have made so much progress and also excited to keep building."