The simple act of arriving in Germany two weeks prior to the Henley Royal Regatta captures quite perfectly one of the main reasons this crew had been so successful. One of the boys in our crew, Daniel, was from Germany—Dusseldorf, his hometown. His father, a man north of 80 in years but still brimming with life, had been struggling with some ongoing health issues. As a boarding student at Ridley College, Daniel had already spent an entire year away from home. Understandably, when his school year ended in June, he was keen to return to his family. The prospects of England, although exciting for any young rower, meant delaying that reunion. The solution for Daniel would be to convince his teammates to come to Germany for two weeks at their expense and prepare for Henley away from their families in Southern Ontario. When he posed that question, his teammates were unanimous—Germany it is!
For me, when the decision was finalized, I wasn’t surprised in the least. These boys adored one another—committing to two more weeks away from home to accommodate a teammate’s wish to be with his ailing father was a no-brainer.
After the usual grind of acclimatizing to five time zones—1 day per zone, the crew was now hitting their stride and logging some solid training sessions. The facilities in Dusseldorf were more than adequate—we trained on 2 kilometers of protected water everyday, and had unlimited access to a training center with ergs and weights. Unfortunately, however, some of the boats that were ours to use were poorly maintained and, consequently, missing a number of parts. Having Winston, our other coach and rigger extraordinaire, along for the trip proved extremely valuable in those first few days. If there was a country in which to Jerry-rig something, we were in it—and Winston worked his magic several times with our borrowed Empacher.
[Empacher: a world-class racing shell deigned and built in Germany] [Jerry-rig: a slang term born out of the allied-forces’ admiration for the German soldiers ability to fix machinery with limited supplies during WW2]
We were staying at a local hostel in Dusseldorf. Daniel’s mom knew one of the owners; who generously agreed to assign a quieter part of the building to our team. The rooms were perfectly European—efficient in design, while clean and comfortable in which to live. Our daily routine was a typical German breakfast in the hostel’s cafeteria—cold meats, yoghurt, muesli, fruit, cheese and coffee or tea. The boys lasted one day before a trip to the local grocer saw boxes of cereal accompany them the next morning.
With breakfast digesting, we gathered out front each morning on our bikes, our chosen mode of transportation, and left en masse for the rowing course. A bike-friendly sidewalk system throughout the city allowed us to maneuver relatively free of any traffic challenges. With the hostel and rowing club located smack-dab in the middle of town, we simply crossed one of many enormous bridges that linked the city districts that were separated by the Rhine River. Ten-minutes later they were carrying their oars to the dock.
Before each ride, I would repeat to all of them that the bikes were for transportation only. As I shared my nagging reminder, they all averted my stare as if to say, “Yeah, yeah, old man—we’re fine. Let’s get going.” With that, we were off. Truth-be-told, I understood their frustration with my clear instructions to not race or “dick around” as I clearly put it. They were competitive teenagers. Who was I kidding; ask them not to race? It was like asking the wind not to blow!
With the first week done, it was clear to Winston and me, that despite all of the unprecedented success that year, these boys were not content with the results from their season, nor the races that we had rowed thus far. They were determined to get faster and discover what we had committed to all year—finding our best race on the day. The weight sessions took on a new intensity, as did the brutally demanding erg workouts we had scheduled. Winston and I never questioned their fitness, but it was clear to all of us that they had more to give and even more to gain. Biking home each afternoon, usually acquiring the role of caboose, I enjoyed reflecting on the day’s work. We had a clear mission and all of them had bought into achieving it. Two years of exceedingly hard work was coming to the perfect storybook ending.
It was Thursday; with the training coming to its’ peak, we were three days from wrapping up in Dusseldorf. The scores from our scheduled erg-work were indicating fitness we had not seen all year. I had tapered many crews before, but none with this sort of conditioning. We were a sub-6:15 combined erg crew—respectable for any club or university team. However, we were a high school and, as far as I knew, that score was unheard of. If they were anything, they were fit and strong. Now, all we had to do was hit this taper properly and they’d be ready to face the best the world had to offer. We had finished-up our afternoon of 2k’s at low rate and then hit the weight-room. It had been a fantastic week—our best of the year. We were on our bikes heading home. Soon we’d be showered and jumping aboard a tram taking us to their favourite all-you-can-eat restaurant a few stops out of town.
Daniel hung back with me. He was a massive kid—6 foot 7 inches with an arm span that most coaches would drool over. He rowed like a German—which meant extremely well, and was a big part of the reason we had been undefeated all year. He wanted to talk about his options for next year regarding schools in the US. When you’d won as many races as these guys had, US college coaches took notice. So far, every member of the boat was spoken for—except Daniel. As we rolled up the incline of our final bridge, I was sharing some things to consider given his dad’s condition. As I watched the car traffic whiz toward me on the other side of the guardrail, I was interrupted with Daniel’s panicked voice. “Shit—someone’s down!”
Immediately, I looked up to see in the far distance that the rest of the boys had stopped—my heart stopped with them. As I imagined the fallout of this game-changing event, I continued to talk with Daniel trying to downplay the significance of what we were heading toward. Eventually, as we got close enough to see that this was serious, the awkwardness of still talking about university options became too evident and we went silent.
One of the boys was trying desperately to untangle the bikes. The two athletes who had fallen were up and limping in circles trying to displace the obvious pain that was now searing through their nerve-endings. There was road-rash everywhere—elbows, knees, forearms, hands, shoulders, shins. This was not good.
“Can both of you walk?” I asked in as calm a voice as I could manage. They both nodded. “Good. Walk your bikes back to the hostel. I’ll meet you there.” With that, I was upon mine and pedaling home. I was mad—really mad. In fact, the satisfaction of repeating over and over again the one and only word that could even come close to processing the anger I was experiencing came spewing from my mouth quite generously. As I passed resident Germans on my decline toward the hostel, I’m sure they needed no translation to know something was up with the Canadian on his fast moving bike.
Winston was already home having left early from the gym. One look from me and he knew something was up. “Cosmo and Mathew are hurt. They collided bikes on the bridge.”
He shook his head. “Is it serious?”
We both stood in silence waiting for our crew to arrive. Eventually, two sore looking bodies with blood now caking on their braised skin came toward us. Their bikes were in the care of their teammates. No one was speaking.
“What hurts, Mathew?” I asked one of the injured boys. He shrugged as he tried to downplay the red-coloured Picasso-like masterpiece the sidewalk had left on him from head to toe. I gathered immediately we had found our culprit. Mathew was quite a specimen. He possessed muscular maturity that was rare for a teenager. His intensity for racing combined with a tireless work ethic made this young man an ideal stroke-seat. And, he had claimed that seat in both our coxed-four and our quad that had won National Championships in the US and Canada. It was hard to be mad at him; it was who he was—a racer!
[Coxed-four: a category in rowing that has coxie (a small/light athlete who steers the racing shell while giving instructions and encouragement) four athletes rowing with one oar each—two on each side of the shell] [Quad: a category in rowing that has four athletes rowing with one oar in each hand] [Stroke-seat: the seat in the racing shell responsible for, among other things, setting the pace]
As I inspected his road-rash, I knew one thing—his next shower was going to be painful. “Here’s the deal, Mathew. You need to go shower and scrub each of these wounds with a facecloth and soap. If there’s any gravelly-bits in there, you need to get them out. Understand? If this road-rash gets infected—you’re screwed!” He nodded and disappeared into the hostel.
“How are you doing Cosmo? What hurts on you?” I asked our other wounded teammate.
“Okay.” Unlike Mathew, Cosmo didn’t appear sheepish. “Aside from the cuts, my elbow hurts—a lot.” he replied. Cosmo occupied the bow-seat of our boat. Normally reserved for the “coxie” of the crew, given it was their job to execute the race plan. What I admired about Cosmo the most, aside from his grit and physical strength, was that he was a good strategist—he knew how to call an effective race. Part of our success that year was due to Cosmo’s leadership—he was a straight shooter and the boys respected him for it.
As I took his hand and checked for his range of motion, it was clear that this was more than a bad bump. “Daniel, can you get us to the hospital? This thing needs an x-ray.”
“Of course. I’ll be back with my mom’s car.” Daniel answered and he turned for home.
Sitting in the waiting room of the Dusseldorf Hospital, it was clear that we weren’t in Canada—there was no one waiting! Within moments, a nurse appeared and Daniel explained our circumstances. No sooner were they finished speaking was Cosmo on his way to the radiology wing. 30 Euros later and we were driving home with a confirmed bad contusion but, thankfully, no break.
Having stopped at the local pharmacist on our way back, we were now fully stocked with gauze, disinfectant sprays and ointments, tape and painkillers. We had a week until our first race. There was nothing to do but the obvious—take care of these boys the best we knew how.
That night, after a quiet dinner—not the romantic kind—utilizing the hostels painfully slow Wi-Fi, I connected with my wife Robyn back home in Canada. When you travelled as much as we did, FaceTime was essential. Through a sketchy connection, Robyn could see immediately that something was up. “What’s wrong, Jase?”
“There’s been an bike accident involving two of the boys. Nothing too serious, but… we might be screwed.”
“Oh, Jason, I’m so sorry.” After filling in Robyn with the details, it was time for bed. It had been a rough day, and I was beat.
The next morning, I told the crew that I wanted to meet after breakfast. With everyone gathered, I began. “So. How’s everyone doing today?” Some shrugs and nods answered my question—but I wasn’t expecting much more. They were hurting as much as I was. “The way I see it, we have one way out of this mess. It’s the same way we’ve used in the past when we’ve faced challenges. ‘How can this be the best thing that ever happened to us?’ There’s no other way, boys. We have to embrace this as an opportunity. If we don’t, there will be resentment amongst us, which will breed bitterness and eventually that will divide the crew. If that happens, we’re done.”
I looked at each of them. “Therefore, moving forward—again—we have to do what we’ve done all along—take care of everything we can control and not let the other stuff bother us. That’s it—that’s our way out. We’ve got less than a week until we race. We have to stay positive and do everything we can to put our fastest crew on the water. Period.” Their looks were accepting. It certainly wasn’t the first time they had heard that from me, nor was it the first time we’d faced adversity. We’d had a bucket-load of that all year, and on each occasion they had risen above it and performed incredibly well. However, this would be their ultimate test. It didn’t get anymore challenging.
“How about you Luc-monster—how are you doing with all of this?”
Luc was the fourth member of the crew. If there was a decided engine room in this boat—he was it. Not the tallest guy in the crew, and not the biggest—but, man could he pull! Having had the privilege of coaching some exceptional athletes in my time, I had met some young boys who could push themselves beyond that threshold of, not just pain, but sheer agony. There was a reason Luc’s 2K erg score was only a few seconds off 6 minutes. Yes, he worked hard and yes, he was strong—but his complete and tireless belief in himself was what set him apart from his peers. He wasn’t much for words, but when he spoke it was hard not to love him. A few months earlier in Princeton at a training camp, upon finishing another 2K PB, he was still laying on the ground outside more than 20 minutes later. When I checked on him, he said calmly, “I don’t feel very well, Jason.”
“I think we can overcome this.” Shared the ever-encouraging Luc. “We just have to remain positive and work extra hard!”
“Perfect. I would agree, Lucer! Okay, I’m going to head out. You guys stay behind. If there’s anything that needs to be said—now’s your chance. If you’re pissed off, say it. If you want to get something off your chest, do it now. Otherwise, from here in, we’re done with this accident and everything going forward is about showing up in England and finding the best race that we can on the day. Got it?” I left the boys alone.
Biking to the training center later that day, we took an alternative route. As we traveled along the Rhine we came upon some ruins from an old bridge. I quickly glanced over at the structure as we sped by. Not certain of what I had seen, I stopped immediately and walked my bike back for a closer look. I called for the boys to join me. The remaining stone frame that had at one point many years earlier supported a bridge that crossed the river behind us was littered with holes where bullets and explosives had struck the stonework. Standing there imagining young German boys—the same age as the boys standing beside me—desperately defending this side of the Rhine from advancing allied forces during the Second World War, it was easy to find some perspective with our circumstances. Yes, our team had suffered a devastating blow. Yes, we had trained hard and made enormous sacrifices for this upcoming regatta. And, yes, to be so close and so well prepared and have something like this happen just day’s prior seemed, somehow, incredibly unfair. But, the truth of it was, these young boys weren’t going to war. They were attending a regatta—one that many considered for the privileged elite. Sure, the accident sucked—but no one died. I got back on my bike and slowly proceeded along the path thinking that, perhaps, maybe—just maybe, there was something bigger in store for this crew.
The remaining training time in Germany was spent on stationary bikes for Mathew and Cosmo, and ergometers for the rest of them. We tried rowing once with Mathew’s hand taped, but it was too painful—even for him. His left hand had suffered a nasty gash from when he landed while tumbling off his bike. We probably should have had it stitched, but it was too late now. There was no way it was going to heal before the end of the Regatta—not with him re-tearing it open every time he rowed. As for Cosmo, he was improving, but he was a long way from being able to straighten his arm—an obvious requirement if he was going to be able to race.
The Henley Royal Regatta is known as the most prestigious regatta in the world. Crews travel from every continent to race on the River Thames. However, it’s an odd course as regatta courses go. Competitors race 2112 meters against the current and because the course travels a straight line up a winding river, there are times during the race you’ll find yourself at an advantage or disadvantage depending on which lane you’re rowing. It’s the Henley Royal and, if the current is flowing, everyone knows the course can be unfair. But, honestly, the Brits love it that way—having under-dogs win races only adds to the drama of the event. And, with tens of thousands of people lining the course enjoying Pimm’s and dressed in their finest, anything you can do to encourage viewership is a bonus.
On Sunday, we arrived with just enough time to drop off our gear as the Athlete’s Enclosure was shutting down for the day. With a place secured in the tent, we then made our way back to the Hotel in Marlowe. At dinner, we outlined the plans for Monday, our first day on-site. We could tell the boys were excited to be here, but there was some obvious tension in the air as to who would be racing—Cosmo or, our spare, Josh.
Josh was the only grade 11 in the crew. He had joined the senior training group in the fall and had been working with these boys for 10 months. In that time he had garnered the respect of all of them. He was quiet, driven and intensely hard-working. We had tested him earlier in the season at the US Schoolboy Championships where he had filled-in for Daniel and helped the crew win the senior coxed-four event. Although he lacked the racing experience that Cosmo brought to the crew, he was strong and fit, and Winston and I completely trusted him to perform at his best.
That first morning in Henley-on-Thames, while Winston rigged the quad, I went to find someone from the medical staff and inform them of our situation. I found the Regatta’s physiotherapist who would assess Cosmo each morning and give his recommendation on whether or not he could race. With Josh listed as our crews’ spare, we would simply make the call each day and inform the Regatta Chair which athlete would be racing in our boat. After speaking with the physio, I found one of the Regatta Officials. We sat down and I explained what had happened. He shook his head and smiled.
“I know, teenage boys—right?” I added.
“Not exactly.” he countered. “If you were familiar with our British Men’s Team in the latter part of the ‘90’s, and what happened to one member, Tim Foster, you’ll understand me when I say, it’s not teenage boys—it’s just boys!”
[Foster put his hand through a glass window at a party in May of 1998 and was unable to race in the early part of the season]
We both acknowledged his addendum. Then he continued, “You know, I remember your Neil Campbell and his crews of the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s—they were so impressively big and fast. Ridley was such an institution here during those years. I have some fond memories of Neil!”
“Those were magical times, for sure.” I replied.
“Indeed.” We both stood up. “We’ll do whatever we can to help you through this week. All the best to you and your crew, Jason. Good-luck!” After thanking him and shaking hands, I left.
On my way back to see the crew, I gave a quiet thanks to Neilbert as well—my guess, the two of them had shared a scotch or two all those years ago.
“We’re all set,” declared Winston. “We just have to adjust the oars and we’ll be ready to head out.” I walked up to the boat suspended in stretchers. “Perfect. Thanks, Winston!” I put my hand on the bow. “Before we head out, though, I want to name our new chariot!” I found my backpack and went digging for the name decal that I had made before we left home. When you rent boats abroad, you get to name them whatever you want. What would have made most sense, perhaps, was to use the name we had used back home on our own boat, but I wanted to use this as an opportunity to pay tribute to a fellow rower.
I carefully peeled back the sticker and adhered the name to the bow section of our boat. I stepped back and asked everyone to come in for a moment. I began to explain why using this name was so important to me. Peter Yates had been a great friend and mentor when I was a younger man. He had helped me find my way through some challenging struggles in my life. A number of months earlier, Peter had died of cancer. Far too young. Far too healthy. Far too much more to give. It was tragic on every level. In November, weeks before he died, Robyn and I had travelled out to Victoria to say our goodbyes. It was an incredible experience. Here was this man—a husband, a father, a brother, and a friend to so many still giving in his final days. People had travelled from all over the world to see him. Someone described it as visiting the Budha! With no hair and limited verbal communication—his communication was incredibly clear and present. The essence of Peter in that moment was love. In his death, he was all love.
During one of our visits, I asked him if he wanted to race down the Thames one more time. He smiled. It was decided; Peter would sit in our boat for as many races as we lasted. Given the amount of love that was present in our crew—it wasn’t a stretch to see why he so easily represented the essence of not only these boys, but of what had got us here. In explaining to the group why having Peter’s name on and his ashes in our boat were so important to me, it was hard to control my emotion. However, I didn’t care—these boys knew me well enough and, more importantly, they knew what Peter meant to me. They were quiet and respectful while I struggled to get my words out. In the end, we agreed that our new name was indicative of what this whole journey had been about.
With Cosmo still unable to straighten his arm, Josh was having his first row in the quad 3 days before he may have to race it. We decided to leave the line-up as is, put Josh in bow-seat and have Daniel call the races from 3-seat. Josh would have enough to think about with just following this powerful machine in front of him and making sure they didn’t run into anything. During practice times, there were lots of crews out on the course, but no coach boats were allowed. Winston and I were now relegated to spectators just like the rest of the coaches. Even though there was a bike path that allowed us to speed along beside our crew and shout out the odd command, given what had just happened the week earlier, I opted to walk.
Henley was a funny place. Coaches watched and even filmed other crews as they rowed by seemingly trying to garner that little bit of information that might help their crew win. I never bought into it. As Neil had taught us years earlier, if the work wasn’t done by now, no amount of clever strategizing was going to help anyone at this point. Having said that, we had gone radio silent since the day of the accident. I had been posting information online about the events and goings on of the crew up until that day. However, a post that one of the boys found on another website reviewing each of the favoured crews, of which our boys were one, showed us that everyone was watching. And, I didn’t want anyone to know what we had been struggling with.
After what appeared to have been a good first row, they came off the water less stressed—even a bit excited that things had gone as well as they had. With that, we called it a day and went back to our hotel. Once there, Winston continued with treatments for Cosmo with a fascinating little machine that we felt was going to aid in Cosmo’s ability to be ready to race. It was called a Scenar machine—I referred to it as that StarTrek thingy.
Winston’s approach to life was simple—if you want something bad enough, make it happen! This can-do philosophy defined his coaching. We had known of each other since the early 1980’s when our respective schools had raced. He had returned to coaching decades earlier and won countless races and regatta championships. We had reconnected while he was reading my book two years earlier. With each chapter he read, he would share with me online his thoughts and own perspectives. Clearly, he had reflected on his own legacy as a coach, and our approaches were now more similar. He was passionate and knowledgeable. In fact, aside from his keen eye for technique, it was his knowledge of rigging that I most trusted. As far as I was concerned, if there was someone who knew more about rigging than Winston—I wasn’t aware.
The night of Cosmo’s accident, Winston found a person online who lived near Henley-on-Thames that owned one of these gizmos. Having been treated with a Scenar device after a painful back injury and finding it incredibly helpful, Winston felt it just might be our ticket. When we arrived in Henley, he acquired the machine for a week. After a hefty down payment and quick tutorial, Winston took on the role of rehabilitating Cosmo. Essentially, the premise was that this machine—using sensitive electronic vibrations—not only indicated visually where there was trauma, but also then went about helping to heal the injured tissue. By Wednesday, the improvements that Cosmo had made were nothing short of miraculous. Each day his mobility was markedly improved. By Thursday, after a trial row on the erg, Cosmo felt he was ready to jump in the boat. One heck of a time to test a serious injury—the morning of our first race at Henley!
Being a seeded, or favoured, crew we were granted a bye in the first round and didn’t have to race on Wednesday. That gave us another day to treat and rest Cosmo while Josh continued acclimatizing in the quad. Henley was an elimination style regatta. Which meant each day two crews would go head-to-head with the winner advancing. It’s one of the reasons Henley is such a unique rowing spectacle. The strategy for so many crews, especially the young ones, was to get out front and stay there. When you’re 17 years old and a crew disappears from your peripheral vision, the chances of that young athlete having the maturity, composure and discipline to reel that crew back in was highly unlikely. No surprise, that was and had been our racing strategy all year—and, it had worked every time. However, this was Henley and with the lane discrepancies, crews were well advised to adjust their game plan depending on the lane they drew.
In typical Henley fashion, the lanes are named—each relating to the part of the town that it was closest to. One lane is called Buckinghamshire or Bucks Station, and the other Berkshire or Berks Station. When the current is flowing, and this year it was, Berks Station is the favoured lane. In fact, we told drawing Berks Station this year was worth from 3 to 4 seconds. With that sort of advantage, it was important to know when and where to make a “push” during the race in order to optimize, or minimize, that difference.
Either way, we were under no illusion that this was going to be easy. Even without the accident, racing the best junior sculling crews in the world is a tall order. We knew we would have to be sharp and focused in order to advance each day.
During the Thursday morning practice row, we did the first loop of the course with Cosmo and then the second with Josh. As the boys came by on their second trip with Josh in the boat, they pulled over to the bank and indicated they wanted to talk. With Cosmo’s dad standing with us and all of the other spectators and coaches, Winston and I were on edge hoping the boys weren’t going to share too much.
“What’s up? How’s it going out there?” I asked as quietly as possible.
Daniel spoke-up. “It’s going well. We had a decent row with Cosmo, but no offense to Cosmo…”
Oh boy—be careful, Daniel—I thought to myself.
“… it seems more stable with Josh. I just think Cosmo is still testing his arm. It feels like he’s a little worried to really lay on it.”
“Okay. That’s fair. Take it in and we’ll see you back at the tent.”
With that, it appeared Winston and I had our line-up for the afternoon’s race. As I passed Patrick, Cosmo’s dad, I patted him on the back and told him we’d catch up with him later. One of the best parts of coaching this crew was the parents that came along with the package deal. They were incredibly supportive and never meddled in our business of coaching. Although Patrick, his wife and her parents had travelled all this way to watch their son and grandson race, he knew that Winston and I had a responsibility to the rest of the boys to put the fastest line-up on the water even if that didn’t include his son. Knowing that support was there, however, didn’t make the decision any easier.
When Winston and I made it back to the tent, the boys were wiping down the boat and putting it back on the rack. With the blades put away we all gathered.
“How was that, Cosmo?” I figured there was no point skirting the issue.
“Pretty good. I could feel it by the end of the row. But, over-all, not bad.” He replied optimistically.
“You ready to race with that?” I continued.
“I think it’s ready.” He added.
I looked at Winston. We both knew that his elbow wasn’t ready. His heart was—but not his body. “I think we’re going to wait one more day, Cosmo. Josh, you’ll race this aft. Okay? Remember guys—come back to what’s got us here—trust that it’s all happening, as it should. Be patient. We’re going one day at a time, here.” They all seemed fine with the decision.
After a light lunch and some quiet time back at the hotel, we returned to the regatta sight intent on having the best race we could manage given the circumstances. As the boys went through their prerace routine, Winston and I checked over the boat and the oars ensuring everything was tight and measured-up correctly. Sometimes the worst part of racing was the waiting—both for the athletes, and the coaches. The job of the athlete was to remain focused, but calm. Too many rowers got worked-up unnecessarily and rendered themselves useless come race time. These boys were quite adept at knowing what served each of them best. However, for Winston and me, even though we had coached at our fair share of regattas, for me, especially—the butterflies still came out to play.
With a little over an hour until we would head out, Joanne Yates—Peter’s wife—and her daughters Aly and Lizzie showed up with our 5th rower. There were 5 boxes that had been hand carved by a good friend with the intent of transporting Peter to the coinciding 5 places in the world he wanted to rest—Henley-on-Thames being one of them and the first on his list. I asked Joanne and the girls to Christen the boat in Peter’s name. Then, Joanne gave me Peter’s ashes and we secured him into the middle of the boat.
When one of the officials showed up to inspect our racing shell, I thought we might have problems with Peter. However, the official checked all of the usual things—shoes, slides, riggers and registration, but not one word about the ringer that we had tied into the boat. That was fine with me. I figured, if push had come to shove, he would’ve been fine with it—but I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t at the very least asking what this fancy wooden box was doing in the midst of all of this high-tech machinery.
“Okay, time to go boys.” As we shoved off the crew, with Cosmo along side gathering shoes and doing what he could to support his crewmates, I was struck with how composed they were.
Winston and I weren’t much for watching the races together. He went to find his spot, while I walked a lot further down the river to find mine. It was only 2 days into the Regatta and, already, there were thousands of people lining the banks to watch the early qualifying races. The Henley Royal Regatta Committee really did put other regattas to shame in terms of how to combine a celebration with a sporting event—there was none like it in the world. People were dressed to the nines and picnicking beside their Bentley’s and Jaguar’s—it truly was quite a sight to behold. In fact, if you didn’t know there was a regatta going on, you’d be hard-pressed to tell from the people attending.
Given that watching rowing races could be as exciting as watching the grass you were standing upon grow, the going trend with regatta viewing was to use technology to engage the spectators right from the start—literally. Therefore, for a few pounds, you could purchase an earpiece that provided live stroke-by-stroke accounts of the racing. Regatta Radio had the challenge of striking the right balance between the ongoing results and little bits of interesting side notes that kept listeners entertained in-between races or when there really wasn’t much of one. As far as I could tell they had done a good job so far. As I turned on my radio, while I was walking to my viewing spot, it was hard not to agree that this certainly added to the experience of being at a regatta.
However, then came time for our boys to race—now they were talking about us! Where attending regattas was usually about watching with no commentary, now it was about listening to commentary with nothing to watch—the crews were too far up the course. This wasn’t fun. I thought. This was agony.
Eventually, the commentator shared that our boys were out front and leading comfortably. As we came through the halfway mark, the time announced was the fastest of the day for this event—a good indicator.
Having won, the boys were all business back at the tent. They took the race in stride. “How was that?” I enquired.
“Good.” Offered up, Daniel. “Josh did a great job. It felt easy. But, I know we can get faster.” They all agreed, and went off to warm-down on the ergs.
I turned to Cosmo and smiled. When you’re the guy sitting out, it’s tough to hear that the race went well. However, full credit to him, he was genuinely excited for his crew and did what he could to show his support and enthusiasm.
That night, Winston treated Cosmo once more in the hopes that he still may get a shot at racing. Cosmo had been remarkably calm so far, but I knew he was dying to get back into his seat.
The next morning, Cosmo and I met in the workout room located in the hotel. We had to know how much his arm could withstand and if there was any chance of him getting through an entire race. We agreed to some starts and full pressure pieces. After a normal warm-up he began a series of 10-strokers at full pressure. With each piece, his scores got better and his confidence seemed to grow. Then I suggested he try some starts. Again, no apparent discomfort and his scores were where they should have been. “Well, what do you think? Do we give it a try?”
Cosmo nodded and said, “Let’s do this.”
Josh knew that his role was to fill-in, not replace—that’s the brutal truth. However, if there was a textbook on how to conduct yourself as a spare in the most mature, supportive and composed manner—Josh was now writing it. He was neither excited when he was in the boat for fear of emphasizing the disappointment that Cosmo was experiencing, nor was he disappointed when we pulled him that morning—expressionless and completely understanding of his place. I had rowed international regattas with Canada where we had used spares—non had conducted themselves as admirably as Josh.
Before they shoved for our morning row—just to make sure Cosmo’s arm felt good on the water—I crouched down beside Daniel. “I know we all want Cosmo to have a race, but you still need to be hyper-critical of this row. If it doesn’t go well, you have to tell us. Okay?” He nodded.
Winston and I made our way to the course to watch them row by. Everything appeared to be okay, however, they hadn’t stopped to say anything this time. Did that mean it was bad—would we switch back to Josh? We returned to the tent to meet with them very much the same way we had left, quietly. The stress that Winston and I had at this point was palpable. There was so much resting on this one decision.
As the boys waited for us on the dock, they were smiling. “Well, what’s the verdict?” I asked.
“Felt great—we’re good-to-go!” said Daniel.
With the boat put away, and Winston making some last minute adjustments on the oars, Cosmo and I went to find the Regatta’s physiotherapist, again. The Chair was informed of the switch and we were set.
Later that afternoon, moments before it was time to launch, Jonathan Leigh—Ridley’s 9th Headmaster—came by our tent to see the boys and wish them well. As I stood by and watched him shake all of their hands and have a brief chat, I thought how perfect it was that the man whose vision it had been to return Ridley rowing to what it was decades earlier be here to watch the Ridley Crew he had helped start. Two years ago, he had moved back to England to take on another Headship at a British school and had not seen the boys since. Needless to say he was struck by their size and was encouraged by their development. Likewise, the boys were thrilled to see him. After a quick rousing pep-talk, he was off to find his seat and cheer them on.
Sitting on the bank of the Thames, minutes before our race, listening to the commentators through my earpiece, I was nervous. Yesterday, we had drawn the Berks Station, but today we had the Bucks. Given that with each new day came a tougher race as the better crews advanced, we recognized that leading from the get-go in the slower starting lane was going to be a challenge. Our boys were used to getting out front quickly, but if that didn’t happen this evening, I was concerned they might get rattled.
As 6:30 drew closer, I recognized the voice on the radio to be Freddie—the young man who had come by our tent earlier that day to speak with the crew. He had asked some good questions and conducted a respectful interview. As he shared that conversation live, I was impressed with how encouraging he was. He even gave a shout-out to all of the families and friends listening back home in Canada—class act!
Then, the commentator at the start took over and began to go through the Nottingham crew one at a time listing their experience and accomplishments. If racing at Henley wasn’t challenging enough, this particular event was open to both high school and club crews. Which meant that we could race composite crews that didn’t necessarily row at the same school. As the commentator shared the bio’s of each rower from Nottingham, my butterflies began to grow.
Soon, the race was on. They called both crews striking 43 strokes-per-minute off the line and sitting even. “Come on Cosmo, you can do this, buddy.” I said aloud. At the first marker, we were out front—by only just a bit. But, I’d take that given the lane. Our strategy for today was to hold Nottingham as best we could from the start and then make a push when the current crossed over to favour us around the midway mark.
At the ¼ mile we had increased our lead, but it was still tight. At the next marker they called us up by ¾’s of a boat. At this point I was feeling good about our situation. Once at the halfway marker, I knew these boys would stretch out that lead and then hold it to the line. They were so big and strong, so fit that no one had been able to row through them all year. Once they established a lead, they were quite adept at maintaining it.
When the next commentator came on, she reminded everyone that with the current being active today, Nottingham would only have to keep in contact with us before having the advantage coming into the final sprint where they could make their move and win. My stomach churning, with the crews still out of sight, all I had to go on was what I was listening to. Clamoring for more information on how we were progressing, the commentator took the opportunity of having an international crew in the race to share stories of St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. “Are you kidding me? I don’t care about the Falls—tell me about my crew!”
At the halfway marker we were down to a ½ boat-length lead. Then with a little more than 600 meters to go, that lead had been cut to 1/3. Something was wrong. Something had happened. This was the part of the race where we should be stretching out to a boat length lead of open water, not getting rowed through. By now I could clearly see them. Nottingham was slowly, but steadily, rowing through us. As both boats went out of sight, again, and approached the finish line, I began to walk back toward the tent still listening to the commentators as they said the lead was down to a canvas. At that point, I figured this was our last race.
“The rates are going up in both boats. They are neck-and-neck, as both crews sprint for the line. Can Nottingham catch the Canadians, or will Ridley hold them off? It’s going to be too close to call.” Said the one of the commentators, obviously excited by the race he was calling.
“Come on boys, PUSH!” There were so many people as I hurriedly walked along the path; I didn’t care who heard me.
“Nottingham is starting to steer towards the center of the course—I hope they don’t clash blades! No, they’re getting back on terms and Nottingham have taken the lead!” With that, it was over. There was no way we could come back. “Wait, Nottingham have crabbed. Oh, what a disaster for Nottingham. Ridley have gone on to win the race.” Said the other somewhat deflated announcer.
“WHAT?” My walk became a run.
Arriving back to the tent, the boys had gathered around our boat. Their heads were low.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“If those guys hadn’t have crabbed, they would be advancing—not us!”
“Really. Last time I checked, not crabbing was a requirement for having your best race. They crabbed. You didn’t. You won—fair and square. That’s the last time I want to hear anything about that! We’re advancing to the semi’s tomorrow—top 4 crews out of 65 entered. Think about what we’ve been through in the last week. You guys have no reason to hang your heads—got it?” I looked at each of them. “Okay. Usual warm down. Get showered and we’ll head back for dinner. That was a gutsy race out there today—I hope you can hear that.”
Joanne came into the tent all smiles. “I don’t know, Jase. That was pretty close!” I gave her a big hug.
“My guess is Peter’s having so much fun, he wanted another race—THANK YOU, PETER!” We both laughed walking toward the shell to unstrap Peter from the boat. “Great race, boys!” Joanne yelled to the crew as they walked to the erg room. “We’ll see you tomorrow, Jason!” Smiled Joanne as she stuffed Peter into her purse and made her way out of the athlete’s tent.
Dinner was unusually quiet. Something was up. Winston and I had been doing this long enough to know that one of us needed to chat with the crew. Later that evening, I asked Cosmo to come by my room.
“How are you feeling?” I began.
“Good, I feel pretty good—nice to finally race today.” He answered.
“How’s your elbow?” I continued.
“A little sore, but not bad.” He said as he rubbed his arm and straightened it.
“How do you think the race went today? Are you tired—it’s been a while since you’ve rowed that hard?”
As we continued to talk it became apparent that Cosmo was convinced the race had gone well and that he was as good as ever with no concerns going forward. I, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure.
With Daniel, Luc and Mathew now in my room, it was time to go through the same questions. Their answers were pretty much what I expected—vague. However, when I asked how the race had gone, there was a long pause—they looked at each other. “What? How did it go?” I repeated.
“The first half was great! We got away clean and kept moving.” Answered Daniel. “Then… “ He hesitated. “… it got heavy. At the halfway mark when we were supposed to move and really open things up, the boat got heavy.” He said sheepishly.
“Heavy?” I enquired. “What do mean—heavy? Heavy as in something went wrong with the boat, or heavy as in someone stopped pulling?”
“Look, we have to find out what happened today. We’re not doing anyone any favours if we don’t sort this out!” I said.
“I just don’t think Cosmo was able to pull like he normally does—his arm was too sore.”
“Hmmmm. Well that’s not good is it?” I looked at each of them. They were squirming as if they’d just ratted out a friend. “If Cosmo’s not ready to race—he’s not ready to race. It doesn’t make him a bad person. We just need to figure out what we’re going to do tomorrow.”
“Will you put Josh back in the boat?” Daniel asked.
“I’ll speak with Winston and we’ll let you know. In the meantime, you need to get some sleep. Either way we’ve got another big race tomorrow!”
I knocked on Winston’s door as I entered.
“What’s up? How’s Cosmo?” Winston asked.
“Not bad. His arm is sore, but he seems to think he’ll be fine tomorrow.” I said as I cleared a spot on the bed.
“What do you think?” Winston asked.
“Remember when I asked Cosmo about the warm-down after the race and he got so defensive? The boys said he never did it—which would explain a lot. Clearly, he’s in more pain than he’s letting on. And, just before they went out to race today, he asked for another painkiller—I said no, but now that I think about it—it all makes sense. His family’s here—and, he doesn’t want to let them down. They didn’t come all this way to watch him stand on the bank—he wants to race!”
“Well, that’s Cosmo—he’s a tough-nut.”
“There’s no choice here, Winston—I’ll call Patrick in the morning and let him know we’re going to make the switch. He’ll understand.”
With Patrick in the loop, it was time to tell Cosmo. I knocked on his door and asked if he had a moment. He followed me back to my room. “Have a seat.” There was no other way to do this than just come out with it. “I know you think your arm is holding up but, it’s clear to Winston and me, you’re not 100%, Cosmo. Something went wrong yesterday—no one has ever rowed through you guys—regardless of the current advantage, that just shouldn’t have happened, period.” I figured he knew what was coming, but it didn’t make it any easier. “I’m sure you can appreciate that it’s my job to put the fastest 4 guys on the water each race. Well, we think it’s better to have Josh in there today instead of you.”
Cosmo looked away nodding his head as he let what I had just said sink in—he wouldn’t be racing today. I sat quietly and let him process the situation. Moments later, his hands came to his face and he began to sob.
“I know this sucks. Believe me, I’d do anything to keep you in that boat—but I can’t. It’s not fair to the other boys.”
“I know. I know.” He said with tears now streaming down his cheeks.
“I spoke with your dad earlier. He’s expecting your call. You take as much time as you need.” With that, he left.
That was the first time I’d seen Cosmo cry. Our strong, quiet, unshakable leader had finally released the emotion he had been carrying around for over a week. In many ways, I think it was as much about not wanting to admit to himself, and the boys, that he couldn’t withstand the pain. Cosmo was as stubborn as they came, and we’d relied on that stubbornness all year to get us through races and hard training sessions. However, this was not the time—having me tell him he couldn’t race was a relief more than anything. At least it was me who was preventing him from racing—it wasn’t him having to bow out. The stress that had caused him, and the others in the crew, became clear later that morning when I walked down to lunch to find the boys rolling out of the chairs in a fit of laughter—each one of them. They were back. The crew that we had known all year was finally back. The politically incorrect comments, the toilet humour, the stuff teenage boys do that only teenage boys—and their coaches—find funny, all if it was back and spilling out of them—beautiful.
An hour before we left for the course, we gathered in my room to go over the race plan and then practice it with our visualization exercise. They were light, playful and ready. However, before they left my room to get ready, I wanted to share some of the emails I had received throughout the week from grown men who had done exactly what they were doing today, only decades earlier when they were rowing at Ridley.
It was a privilege for me to read the banter that went back and forth all week long on group emails between men who had gone on to lead remarkable lives, but still remembered where those lives had begun and who they had to thank for them. The comments directed at each other and to their coaches—Neil Campbell and John ‘Munch’ McIntyre—were as moving and they were revealing. All these years later, they still got nervous thinking about the starting gates at Henley. They still remembered the pain of 70 strokers and, perhaps most importantly, they still held closely the friendships formed and the lessons learned all of those years ago pulling on a oar.
After reading them aloud to the crew, I looked up—they were all smiling. Apparently, there was nothing more to say.
We were ready; the Regatta Chair was informed of our switch, the boat and the oars set, the boys warmed-up and Peter tucked securely away—we all stood around our chariot one more time. Despite Winston’s sometimes tough exterior, he was extremely sympathetic to the price of racing as hard as these boys went at it—and what that sort of commitment required. Before each race, when we shared our final thoughts with our crew, I made certain to avoid his gaze for fear of choking. His eyes always watered-up with each pre-race meeting—it was touching, and the boys respected his emotional buy-in.
Given we had drawn the Busks Station, again, our race plan was similar to their previous race. Hang on to the Windsor Boys crew as best as possible off the start and then go to work through the middle of the race. Winston and I knew the boys were tired from yesterday’s race; we had seen the photos from the finish, and we had never seen them so exhausted. That was undoubtedly the hardest they had ever been pushed. Today would be more of the same. The Windsor Boys were a composite crew that had already beaten two seeded crews. They were going to be our toughest challenge to date.
Listening from my usual perch, the Windsor Boys had taken the lead off the start. However, as they raced toward the halfway mark, the commentators were calling us even—neck-and-neck. And, even encouraged anyone close the course to turn and have a look as these two crews went by. Once more, the comments were supportive and respectful of our crew—the last of the international boats at the junior level. However, once they switched to the final stretch of the race, I heard a voice I hadn’t heard all week come online and say something that caught me completely off guard. “You know, they normally pull them out of their football squad…”, referring to our crew and how big they were. “What?” I said aloud. Where did this pompous, archaic buffoon come from? We don’t even have a football team anymore, and where do you get off making a crack like that knowing their families are listening at home? By now the boats had gone by and I was walking back to the tent. This would be their last race. The Windsor boys had held them through the center of the course and then stretched out their lead coming into the finish. There would be no final sprint—no Hollywood ending where we caught them at the line and advanced to the final. Our journey was over.
As we stood at the back of the tent, our boat wet and dripping Henley water, they were quiet and looking completely beat. They had given everything and lost.
“How was your warm-up?” I asked. Daniel smiled at first and then caught himself as if to realize, Why wouldn’t he ask that? It’s what he’s done at the end of every race so far this year.
“It was good—we felt ready.” They all agreed.
“How about your start? How did that go?” I continued.
“It was clean, but they got us by a few seats.” Was their reply.
“And, the race—did you execute our plan as we had discussed?”
“What about the finish—how did that feel?”
“The rate came up, but we just couldn’t come back on them.”
“Was there anything that you think we could’ve done differently?” My final question.
Everyone shook their heads.
“Perfect, there’s nothing to be ashamed of then is there? We did exactly what we came here to do—find out best race on the day. Despite the challenges that we’ve had—you’ve shown up here and raced the best you possibly could. There’s nothing more that Winston and I could have asked. We are both incredibly proud of all of you. Do you understand that?”
They all smiled.
With that the hugs began, the tears flowed and these young men shared a final moment as the crew they had become. Soon after, they made their way out to the front of the tent where their parents were waiting. Winston and I stayed behind to de-rig the boat. There wasn’t much to say between us. We, too, were both exhausted and simply needed some quiet time.
Eventually, Joanne came in to grab Peter. We hugged, and then, along with Aly and Lizzie, walked his ashes to the end of one the docks and poured him into the waters of the Thames. As he danced in the current beneath us—it was a profound moment. This man who had done so much for the young rowers he’s coached here at Henley—now back to rest forever in her waters. One final hug from Joanne and then we moved off the dock to join the rest of the parents with their contented boys.
Before we left for the hotel, we gathered for a final team photo—I loved it. Everyone smiling. Everyone pleased. Everything good.
Upon returning to Canada, I received an email from Cosmo. He had his arm x-rayed again—it was broken. As I had shared in one of the email updates earlier in the week, “You couldn’t write this stuff!
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