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Postlude: Mens Crew Puts Rowing World on Notice

By Peter Schroeder

When the eight oarsmen on GW’s varsity mens crew set out to compete in the Atlantic 10 Rowing Championships last spring, they encountered a bizarre set of circumstances that would have demoralized most sports teams. As the drama unfolded on the Cooper River in Camden, N. J., it first seemed that they wouldn’t even be able to get to the starting line, let alone compete. Their new shell, The Wedge, had been smashed by a competitor’s boat that was going down the river in the wrong direction.

Crew coach Gene Kininmonth and the author christen the team’s new rowing shell, The Wedge.

The sympathetic judges allowed a delay so Coach Gene Kininmonth could try to regroup his team. The frustration of the rowers quickly turned to anger and then to grit and determination. Changing over to

the freshman shell that was hastily jury-rigged for them, the Colonials rushed to the starting line.

As they waited for the starting gun, their energies coalesced into a powerful desire to win and take what they knew rightfully belonged to them. After the shells settled into their paces on the two-kilometer course, GW steadily pushed to the front to take the lead. With a powerful sprint in the last 200 meters, the Colonials held off a strong challenge by St. Joseph’s to win the championships for the first time in the school’s 45-year rowing history. Gene and the crew were elated. They knew they had what it took to win, and they did, despite their handicap of rowing in a borrowed boat.

To understand the full story, we go back to a cold, rainy afternoon at the Thompson Boat Center on the Potomac River in mid-March. The GW crew teams and coaches were gathered with a crowd of alumni oarsmen, friends of GW rowing, top staff from the athletics department, and President Trachtenberg for the christening of the new varsity-eight mens shell. The boat was a Vespoli Millennium, the same type that the British eight-man crew had rowed when they won at the Sydney Olympics last year, arguably the best rowing shell in the world.

President Trachtenberg addressed the group with strong praise for the University’s rowing program and pleasantly surprised everyone by expressing the hope that one day he would dedicate a new GW boathouse.

As a former oarsman, I was proud that my son, Belden, was a member of the varsity crew for the second year in a row. Because I had contributed to purchase the shell, the coaches gave me the honor of choosing a name and christening the boat. I chose the name, “The Wedge,” for personal reasons and because it seemed appropriate for the rapid improvements made by the mens crew under Gene’s guidance in only his first full season.

The personal connection is that, although I was a few inches too short and several pounds too light, I earned a seat in the heavyweight varsity-eight shell at Princeton University strictly on the basis of the strength in my upper body. When the coach noticed me doing one-arm chin-ups, he said that my body looked like a wedge, a nickname that stuck.

Similarly, the GW mens crew team wedged its way into the upper echelons of rowing last year when Gene entered the four stern oarsmen from the varsity eight in a coxless four at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championships. In the heats they systematically knocked off all the traditional rowing powers—Princeton, Harvard, Washington, Berkeley, Cornell, and cross-town rival Georgetown, to finish second for the silver, the best result ever for GW at the nationals.

In christening The Wedge, Gene and I poured a combination of champagne and Potomac River water over the bow. The ceremony was followed by a 1,000-meter sprint race between the mens varsity and junior varsity crews on the Potomac River from Key Bridge to Washington Harbor. The Wedge chalked up its first victory.

The varsity men then opened the season 11-0, the best record ever, with convincing wins in Massachusetts and then at the Occoquan Sprints in Virginia. Later came the high point of the season, the Atlantic 10 Championships. In winning the event in an unfamiliar boat with suboptimal rigging, the mens varsity proved that they could compete with the best. The winning varsity boat was composed of: bow Belden Schroeder, 2 Brendan Gilbert, 3 Charles Boone Porter, 4 Grant Bursek, 5 Michael Kolaitis, 6 Dave Espinoza, 7 Steve Carlson, stroke Victor Marwin, cox Patrick McLaughlin.

These achievements are particularly significant considering the state of the mens rowing program when Gene was hired. In December 1999, he arrived at GW as the sixth mens head coach hired in four years, and the 1998 and 1999 seasons had been disastrous. With high turnover of coaches there had been minimal recruiting, and the program had very little remaining energy when he arrived.

Today the mens rowing program is on a definite upswing. This fall The Wedge was returned to the boat house, repaired and as good as new. With this world-class shell combined with a highly motivated mens crew and Gene’s inspirational coaching, GW is putting the rowing world on notice that it is an emerging power that will not be denied.

Peter Schroeder is a Seattle-based free-lance writer and photographer. His son, Belden, a computer science major, has rowed four years at GW and is completing his senior year.