By Jim McElhatton (Courtesy photo)
The T.C. Williams crew program, which has been rowing on the Potomac River for the better part of 50 years, has quietly gone about its seemingly routine business of turning in top performances in the state and country this spring.
Last weekend, among other strong finishes, the girls freshman 8 came in fourth place at the national championships, while the girls second varsity 8 came in fifth.
The boys won a state title earlier this season in the lightweight varsity 8 for the third year in a row. Overall, T.C. rowers won two state titles as well as silver and bronze medals.
But as the seniors look back on their time in a sport they knew little about just a few years ago, most say they won’t just remember the medals but also the early practices, lengthy bus trips and waiting by a riverside for as long as 10 hours to race for all of 5 minutes.
“It’s being half-awake for a 6 a.m. practice and cracking jokes,” said Sam Zickar, who plans to row next year at The University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “Part of it is the sense of continuity and legacy with the program with alumni from decades ago talking about how much they loved it.”
Many of T.C.’s coaches rowed years earlier for the Titans, moved away and then came back to raise their families. And unlike other sports, where top high school athletes have been competing since they could walk, T.C. crew gives students entry into a sport where they can reach state and national prominence in four or five years or even faster.
Senior Noah Stewart, for example, played lacrosse and didn’t get involved in crew until about halfway through high school. A friend convinced him to go and work out at the boathouse. Coaches immediately recognized a raw, untapped talent.
He was about 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds, recalled coach Peter Stramese.
“From the very first time out, he was putting up phenomenal times,” Stramese said. Stewart got hooked, shed weight and quickly earned a spot on the team. Soon enough, he was being recruited by top programs. Next year, he’ll row for the United States Naval Academy.
“I just felt like I fit in there, they’re more like family,” Stewart said of the T.C. crew program. “I played lacrosse for six years but it was never something I really loved, I just played it. Crew had that different feel to it.”
Like others, senior Calvin Heimberg’s entry into the sport happened almost by accident.
“I’d quit soccer and was trying to figure out my place in high school,” he said. “I was sitting with a group of ninth graders in the cafeteria who rowed and they were talking about how fun it was … and so I just did it.”
Angelo Leitner-Wise said that while he’ll never forget winning three state championships, he’ll always share a bond with teammates through the shared experiences of “waking up at ridiculous hours and going through tough workouts.”
Asked about the success this year, Heimberg said it’s impossible to put it in the context of other sports.
“It’s not like we’re coming together once a year, it’s the culmination of all your years in high school. It’s one of those things where almost anybody can come into and thrive as long as you have an open mind and you have determination.”
T.C. girls coach Pat Marquardt said he tries to get students involved early and makes recruiting pitches in Alexandria’s middle schools.
“It’s at a time when a lot of them are choosing a sport and so I try to get them early and give them my pitch to try something new you know nothing about,” he said.
He knows what that’s like from experience. A former T.C. rower in the 1990s, he played travel soccer growing up but then decided to try crew.
Some who walk into the boathouse, nervous and unsure of themselves, find they’re bound for a top Division I program just a few years later. T.C. rowers have joined programs in recent years like MIT, Ohio State and the Naval Academy.
Senior Katie Pickup will row next year at the University of Wisconsin.
“It’s kind of indescribable to be on the water in a boat with people who care as much as you do,” she added.