Class of 2009: In It Together

Class of 2009: In It Together

Written by John Veneziano, former Harvard Sports Information Director

They come from places as disparate as East Lyme, Conn., the former West Germany, and from America’s heartland to the Land Down Under.

One wanted to play football at Yale. Another was raised on Harvard rowing. Two were internationally accomplished oarsmen before college, while three had no on-the-water experience prior to arriving in Cambridge. And six have never competed in a varsity race for the Crimson.

Yet they’ve all been vital contributors to the splendid tradition enjoyed by the oldest sport at America’s oldest college. They’re the 11 seniors on Harvard’s heavyweight rowing team—James Bayley, Hugo Beekman, James Canning, Tom Fleming, Simon Gawlik, Sam Kenary, Billy Rueter, Henrik Rummel, Teddy Schreck, John Stroh and Matt Webb.

They’re linked by a common cause: to ensure that the success, pride and continuity emblematic of the Harvard rowing program will last long after their rooms at Red Top are cleared out following this year’s Regatta.

"A special camaraderie exists in the Class of ’09," says team captain Schreck, who holds down the four seat in the second varsity after being part of last year’s varsity eight that defeated Yale. "It’s a similar bond that the Class of 2007 shared, one that inspired our class and one that will hopefully inspire classes to come. I sensed it as early as my freshman year. That’s when I began to recognize the compatibility of our unique personalities. We click well."

Schreck was introduced to the sport eight years ago when he arrived at The Haverford School just outside Philadelphia. In contrast, Kenary—son of former Crimson oarsman James Kenary ’78—was introduced to it when he arrived in this world.

"It’s pretty funny looking through my siblings and my baby picture albums and seeing my dad holding us wearing some of the racing shirts he won when he rowed here," says the Worcester, Mass., native who strokes the Crimson’s 2V. "It’s nice to have earned my own over the last few years."

Rowing wasn’t in Webb’s blood or even on his radar. He expected his sporting exploits to take place on autumn the Yale Bowl of all places. An all-conference football player at nearby East Lyme High School, he originally set his sights on attending college in New Haven before that door unceremoniously closed. So, shortly after being accepted to Harvard, he paid a visit to Red Top to find out what this crew thing was all about.

"I happened to interrupt the team’s annual croquet tournament, but I was very well received," he says. "I spoke with Tom Wright [Class of 2006], who had been in a similar situation, and I was very impressed by him and the squad as a whole. They were all very thoughtful and honest."

Webb bee-lined his way to Newell Boathouse when he got to campus and has worked his way up the ranks, going from the open four that won the gold medal at last year’s IRA Championships to the three seat in this spring’s 2V. Yet he’s not the only novice in the senior class who has blossomed during his stay at Harvard. Stroh, from Davenport, Iowa, played on a state champion soccer team and ran cross country at Bettendorf High School. Now he mans the six seat for the second varsity. Rueter was a three-sport captain at Hereford (Maryland) High School, won state titles in lacrosse and football and was an all-state selection on the gridiron.

"I was coming to Harvard for academics," says Rueter, who has moved among all the Crimson’s top boats and will likely see action in the combination race against Yale. "However, during the summer after my acceptance, [head coach] Harry [Parker] sent a letter stamped with his signature asking entering freshmen to consider rowing. Considering the letter and what my father said about the sport, I thought I might try rowing in the fall—knowing it would get me in good shape—and then go out for the lacrosse team in the spring.

"My freshman roommate, by chance, was Matt Webb and we both had the same idea," Rueter continues. "I knew very little about rowing, but most athletics programs don’t actively seek walk-ons. It sounded like a great opportunity. And though it took a long while to become convinced that it was a sport to which I could completely dedicate myself, now I can’t get enough."

Likewise, Stroh never picked up an oar himself but had been friends with a Harvard (Otto Stegmaier ’08) and a Yale (Tyler Guth ’08) oarsman while in high school. "Both of them encouraged me to try the sport. Otto went so far as to give my name to [freshman coach] Bill Manning after I had been accepted. Bill’s enthusiastic words about rowing at Harvard convinced me to join the program."

Canning, another multi-sport athlete, received similar encouragement at a slightly younger age. "I was really into hockey and lacrosse as a kid," says the Rye, N.Y., native who attended Deerfield Academy. "When I arrived at Deerfield, I was pretty much set on continuing those sports. My advisor, however, was the boy’s crew coach. I was tall for my age (Canning now stands 6-feet, 5-inches), and he naturally tried to get me interested in rowing. Once I raced, I knew it was the sport for me.

"In all of my athletic endeavors, I had never felt the thrill that I got from racing," adds Canning. "And I loved the camaraderie that you had with your boat. There was no individual focus about who scored the most goals or who was the most skilled. In rowing, you won and lost as a boat."

It was a half-second loss to Yale as a freshman in 2006 that pushed Schreck to rededicate himself as an oarsman, and probably best explains why he now holds the distinguished title of captain.

"During the train ride home for the summer—shortly after we lost that freshman race—I sat personally disappointed with the way I had approached the year," he recalls. "Disappointing results are hard to swallow in the sport, but I have found that one’s reaction to them can be extremely valuable learning experiences.

"When I got home, I did something I will never forget. Before even walking up to my room, I changed into a unisuit and put my dad’s Ironman Triathlon hat on backwards. I dragged an almost unusable Model B antique ergometer out of my basement door and positioned my family’s old video camera on my deck stairs so I could film myself as I rowed. I still have the tape. I vividly remember strapping my feet in, knowingly making a decision to myself that for the next three years I was going to go for ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ was.

"The 2008 Harvard-Yale race stands as the best day of my life to date," Schreck says of the Crimson’s hard-fought victory, "and I point to that moment two years earlier as the enabling factor that allowed me to experience it."

Experience is something that Rummel and Gawlik brought in abundance to Harvard. Rummel rowed on the U.S. Under-19 National Team and was part of its gold-medal crew in 2005, while a year earlier Gawlik raced in Germany’s Under-23 world-champion boat. They seamlessly transitioned into college rowing, both making the varsity as sophomores and helping the Crimson to the 2007 Sprints title.

"It’s not easy for me to compare the two experiences," says Gawlik, who will be in the stroke seat for the 144th Regatta. "Rowing for the German team was a big honor and something that I spent a lot of time training for. But I was mostly training alone and therefore never got the experience of being on a team.

"At Harvard, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing rowing on a team that is training together all year," he says. "While it was very foreign to me at first, I now think it has made me a better oarsman."

Fleming was a well-known oarsman in his native Australia, winning six different state crowns in high school and then competing for the national development squad, where he was part of two Under-19 national championships (in the pair and four) and was named the best junior oarsman in Queensland.

Now in the five seat for the second varsity, he says it’s impossible to overstate the spirit that drives this senior class. "We’re all great friends and that’s where our motivation comes from. When you train day-in, day-out with a group of close friends, it creates a really special bond, and you no longer row for yourself but for the honor of the team."

Bayley, who moved into the varsity boat last season, believes these friendships are so strong that they overcome the jealousies or bad feelings that can develop in such a competitive atmosphere.

"Rowing can be a tough sport because of how internally competitive it is, causing friends to race one another for spots in boats," says the three-man whose younger brother, Ben, rows for the Crimson lightweights. "This can be a major source of tension, but our class has done a great job not letting that tension affect our friendships. We all get along really well."

Beekman agrees. "Something about participating on this team resonates with all of us. We have shared so many experiences—victories, defeats, and the hardships of training—that it is difficult to consider your teammates anything less than being among your closest friends."

It’s an approach that has spread throughout the program, notes Rummel. "We’ve been an especially inclusive [senior] class, planning activities for the entire team and trying not to create any class hierarchy within the boathouse. We understand that in order to go fast we need every class to raise its game, so we’ve tried to push everyone equally and not leave anyone out."

Those sentiments aren’t just words. Instead, they manifest in the actions of the oarsmen and their unyielding devotion to Harvard rowing.

"We put in a lot of time without the coaches requiring us to do so," explains Rueter. "The football team thinks they have it tough with 5 a.m. mandatory practices, but mandatory is easy. Try getting up every morning and rowing a pair or running a ‘stadium’ at 7 a.m. when you are accountable to no one but yourself and a couple of teammates.

"The culture of our team expects that guys are putting in the work it takes to make strong contributions in the spring, but we don’t require it," he adds. "It is for each individual to decide his commitment. Harry lets us determine our own success."

And from top to bottom, this spring has been another Crimson success story, with the varsity in position to post its first unbeaten dual season since 2005. The top five boats—1V, 2V, 3V, 1F, and 2F—are a combined 20-3 in dual races and each made the grand finals at Sprints, with the 1V, 3V and 1F earning silver medals. The accomplishments are testament to the senior class, insists Coach Parker.

"Teddy Schreck and Sam Kenary have shown exceptional leadership this year on and off the water," says Parker. "They’ve kept the whole squad focused on the goals for the season and looked out for every member of the squad throughout the year. The class as a whole has shown incredible camaraderie and loyalty to one another. They have been one of the great classes of Harvard rowing."

That brings us to Yale, likely the final race for most of these seniors. The event has a way of bringing out the best in Crimson oarsmen, partially because of how it brings them together.

"If I had to point to a specific time that has shaped the friendships on our team, I would point to the weeks leading up to the H-Y Race," says Gawlik. "Whereas most of the time we’re busy studying and working on campus, during this time of the year only rowing seems to matter."

Winning matters, too, as Schreck can attest. "I had always been aware of the Regatta’s historical significance, but the magnitude truly struck me last June when it came time to etch my name on the door of my closet after our victory in the varsity event. I was carving my name above rowers that I had read about. I felt like I was becoming a part of the sport’s history."

Rummel, the five-man in the varsity boat, notes the physical strain that accompanies such a race and admits there’s no way to fully prepare for it.

"I can say with certainty that the four-mile Harvard-Yale race is the most grueling test, mentally and physically, that I’ve ever put on my body through. My first race [in 2007] was very tough because we were pushed by a strong Yale crew the entire way and eventually faltered in the final strokes to lose by less than a second.

"Last year’s race was tougher, however, because Yale started very strong. I felt that I had to put a lot of my energy into the first half of the race to hang on and make sure we caught up to them, and by the two-mile mark I had nothing left. Truth be told, I didn’t think we were going to win the race at the halfway mark because I had expended so much energy trying to cut back into their lead that I was worried I wouldn’t have the energy to fight them off if they were to push us late.

"I had to dig deeper in that race than I ever had to before, and our entire crew did the same," says Rummel. "As a result, we were able to come out on top."

Still, you don’t have to be in the varsity race to sense the Regatta’s history or have the desire to triumph. Canning, expected to be in the Crimson’s combination boat, knows that his crew’s job is to get the weekend off to a good start.

"Each victory is important to us because our goal is to sweep Yale," he says. "So, the combination race is important in that it sets the tone for Saturday. The winner of that has the rock painted the next day, and I think that can be a really motivating factor for the other boats."

Kenary sums up the Regatta for all those who have ever worn a Harvard racing shirt. "My favorite and fondest experience of the H-Y race is seeing the competitiveness, excitement and joy in our coaches at Red Top. This is our biggest race of the year and a chance to celebrate our abilities, training, work, and rowing that we have been developing since September.

"I feel close to Harvard rowing all year, but at Red Top I really feel like we’re a family. Last season, after we swept the Regatta, seeing Harry’s excitement and pride in us was incredible. I always feel that we are all in it together down here."

And to be together at the end—no matter how far apart they were when they started—is what the Class of 2009 will remember most about rowing at Harvard.

John Veneziano is the editor of the Official Super Bowl Program. He spent 14 years (1989-2003) as Harvard’s Sports Information Director, all of those as the primary contact for men’s rowing. In recent years, he has covered the sport for The Boston Globe and written for the Eastern Sprints and IRA programs.