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Friday

“Can you call me?”

It was the text that I had anticipated, dreaded, for about a week. It came from Warren’s wife, Elizabeth.

It was early evening in Philadelphia. We were fighting traffic in an unfamiliar city. I didn’t want to return the call until we were able to stop so that I could concentrate. But by the time we had arrived at our hotel, Elizabeth had texted me that perhaps we could talk later.

Margy and I were in town for the Dad Vail Regatta, the largest collegiate rowing regatta in the United States. Approximately 125 colleges competed in over 175 races held on Friday and Saturday on a six-lane, 2,000 meter course on the Schuylkill River just northwest of downtown Philadelphia. It was the last domestic regatta of Katie’s college career. We had wanted the weekend to be special for her.

I sent texts to Elizabeth to let her know that I was available. Finally, a little after ten, Warren’s brother Bob texted me to let me know that Warren was gone. I talked to Bob and Elizabeth briefly, then called a few people close to Warren, people who I thought should receive the news by phone from a friend rather than through email or text.

Warren had become so sick that I wasn’t entirely sorry he had died; no more suffering. Even so, I felt sadder than I anticipated. It was the finality. I kept thinking that there would be no more conversations, no laughs, no trips to Wildflower, no more shared favorite music. He was just gone forever.

I didn’t sleep much.

Saturday

Katie and her boat had made a decision that I questioned. Instead of entering the Division II/III category for four-rower boats with coxswains, they had decided to row in the “Open” or Division I category. So, instead of rowing against other small colleges like Bowdoin (enrollment approximately 1,839), they took on Division I schools, schools that national media have cited as football “powerhouses.” They did this for at least two reasons. The girls wanted to race tough competition to prepare for the summer’s upcoming trip to England where they would row in the Women’s Henley Regatta. More importantly, the girls believed that they could win.

In their first heat, Bowdoin had taken on Florida (enrollment approximately 50,000), Virginia Commonwealth University (enrollment approximately 31,000), Clemson (enrollment approximately 21,000), and Penn State (enrollment approximately 98,000). Katie’s boat had rowed the course in 7:06 and the nearest competitors came in at 7:20. There were five additional heats featuring schools like Army, Drexel, Temple, UConn, Northwestern, MIT, Villanova, Purdue, NC State…the list went on but no boats got any closer; Bowdoin’s was the fastest of 35 boats in the first heats.

Note that rowing is a club sport at Bowdoin; Katie will never win a varsity letter for her four years of rowing. There is no recruiting. There are no rowing scholarships. The team sells hats, tee shirts and sweatshirts to raise money. They stay in people’s homes when away for regattas whenever they can. Even in the relatively low-budget world of Division III sports, club rowing operates on a shoestring budget.

Saturday’s weather forecast had looked iffy, so Katie and her boat had rowed hard to attain the best qualifying time in Friday’s first heat. If the weather prevented semi-final and final races on Saturday, the fastest time would win. Even so, Katie felt that they had rowed hard in their Friday heat but not all out. “About 90 percent,” she estimated.

Early on Saturday morning, Margy and I talked before leaving our hotel and heading to the regatta. We wondered when we should tell Katie that Warren had died. We decided that she would not have time to absorb the news before her first race of the day, the semi-finals held in the early morning, and that we should wait until after that race finished. Should she be fortunate enough to move on to the finals, we could tell her and she would have time to regroup before the 3:23 pm race.

We arrived at the venue and listened as Katie and her boat’s crew talked. The girls exuded a quiet confidence. It wasn’t a swagger or an attitude disposing the girls to boast. Their confidence, their belief in themselves, showed up in their discussion of strategy. The girls carefully considered how they wanted to race. But they only talked about the amount by which they wanted to win. Did they want to “let the dogs off the leash” and go all out and win by a lot, thus risking that they might be fatigued when racing in the final? Or did they want to go out, get ahead and stay ahead only by a boat length or two, thus saving energy for an all-out push in the final? They never seemed to consider what to do if they fell behind. It never seemed to occur to them.

Bowdoin’s head rowing coach, Gil Birney, gathered the girls before they were to launch for the semi-finals. Gil provided a mix of strategy and inspiration. When I had talked to Gil earlier about Katie’s boat and crew, Gil said that they were so good that he just tried to stay out of their way. This deflection was predictably modest and completely untrue; Gil was a master of his craft. After Gil’s briefing, the team put all hands into the middle and shouted, “Go Black!”

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Then the girls went through their own routines. They stayed in a tight huddle and sang a song softly, dancing to the rhythm.

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Then they turned more rambunctious and gave one another painful hand slaps.

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The girls hoisted the 42 foot boat onto their shoulders and walked slowly toward the dock to launch.

Courtney Payne, left, and Katie.

Courtney Payne, left, and Katie.

Then, just as she was about to get onto the dock, I told her, “Concede nothing – to anyone.” She smiled and waved, set up her boat, received some last-minute coaching from Gil, and headed out onto the river. The boat pointed downstream, the girls rowed lazily, then turned back up river toward the start.

Katie and I have a set of hand gestures that dates back to “The Princess Diaries” when she was in second or third grade.

 

Pinky squared.

Pinkie squared.

I told Gil about Warren’s death and said that Margy and I had decided to talk to Katie after she finished her morning semi-final race. We did not think that it was right to keep the news from her – and we believed that she would learn sooner rather than later, probably the next time she got on Facebook, something all college kids seem to do several times an hour. Gil agreed and offered his condolences. He said that he thought that Katie could rally in time for the finals.

The semi-finals, featured 18 boats out of the 35 that had entered the Open division. Katie’s heat proved to be yet another coast. This time, the Bowdoin boat went into the lead, then held their ground without overexerting. I stood by Gil as the boats came into the finish line.

“Look at how much harder the other boats are rowing,” he said. “We’re at a 31 or 32 and they’re going all out.”

Gil was referring to stroke rate. A racing pace would have been 35 or 36 strokes per minute while a merely strong and steady rate would be more like the 31 or 32 that Katie’s boat held.

Watching the Bowdoin women's varsity one boat at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia

Watching the Bowdoin women’s varsity one boat at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia with Gil Birney.

In a subsequent heat, the University of Massachusetts turned in a faster time than Bowdoin. Now Bowdoin had to hope that the weather held and that there would be a final that afternoon. I looked at my iPhone and the chances of rain at 4:00 pm were 80%. The little symbol on the phone showed a dark cloud with a lightning bolt. A thunderstorm would bring racing to a halt – and maybe cancel the rest of the regatta. A cancellation before the final would leave Bowdoin in second place.

Katie was all smiles as she got off the water and began to change into more comfortable clothes. I hung around the tent to offer rowers and their parents sandwiches and drinks while Katie changed. Then I looked over my right shoulder and saw Margy hugging Katie. Katie was crying. She had intended to post on Facebook so that her friends would know the results of the semi-finals but had been greeted with news of Warren’s death. She dissolved. It wasn’t the way that she wanted to find out. It wasn’t the way we wanted her to find out.

Katie had known Warren for her entire life and his illness and impending death had been difficult for her. She couldn’t hear about Warren’s situation without crying. Now, here she was on a day that should have been thoroughly happy. Eventually, Katie’s teammates surrounded her, giving her hugs, offering support, sharing her sadness. The girls decided to return to their hotel rooms to rest and prepare for finals – the rowing final coming up at 3:23 that day and their college finals to begin on Monday following the regatta.

Once the girls had returned to the rowing venue after a couple of hours away, it appeared that Katie had rallied. Before the crew began their customary routine, Katie’s teammate Courtney asked if it was OK if they did “that thing.” Katie nodded yes.

Courtney went around to each member of the boat’s crew and inscribed a small “WT” on the inside of each girl’s right wrist in honor of Warren. The girls placed a “WT” on my wrist, too, and I put one on Margy’s wrist.

My right wrist.

My right wrist.

The skies had darkened and clouds hovered over the western horizon but the weather was holding when Katie’s boat set out. The girls rowed slowly downstream in the direction of downtown Philadelphia. The air was thick with humidity. The trees were a light spring green with leaves not yet fully out. The sun felt warm, even through the sky was cloudy. A haze clung to the river valley.

Before coming to an old arch bridge, the girls turned the low, long, narrow boat around, then headed back up the river for one last race. Margy and I began our walk to the grandstand after offering the girls cheers that the girls may not have heard over the traffic on Interstate 76 near the river’s opposite bank.

We found seats in the grandstand near other Bowdoin parents and crew alumni who had been Katie’s former teammates. The skies continued to darken. The last race before Katie’s featured Bowdoin’s second varsity women’s boat. Before that second varsity race started, it began to rain. It was a shower at first but became a strong, steady rain. The announcer let us know that racing had been halted temporarily after the second varsity boat finished.

Then the rain eased. The announcer said that Katie’s race was underway. I stood up and went to the railing near the water. Looking up the race course offered a view of the Schuylkill River laying at the bottom of a steep valley covered with hardwood trees. 1,000 meters up the course was a very tall steel bridge where the boats turned slightly to starboard, then came straight into the finish just beyond the grandstands. I stood and strained to see the boats coming toward the bridge. Then, suddenly, the rain came pounding down. The wind picked up – from a slight breeze to a 40 mph gale, gusting and swirling. Rain squalls lashed the river surface suddenly foaming with white caps. Cardboard, paper, bags, leaves and branches flew through the air. The crowd outside the covered grandstand surged in to get under cover. The bridge upstream disappeared, then the opposite shore disappeared, both behind the thick curtain of rain and wind. I could see only 100 to 200 meters. Katie’s former teammates said that there was no way to race under those conditions. They said that the race had probably been canceled. I worried that one or more of the boats would capsize or swamp with waves crashing over the bow. I thought of Katie and wondered how she would get her feet out of the shoes attached tightly to the bottom of the boat if the boat sank.

After what seemed like a very, very long time, one boat emerged from the sheets of rain 400 to 500 meters up the course. Another boat came into view, then another. Finally, all six boats appeared to be upright and still rowing. The wind continued to push against them. With each stroke, when oars went into the water, huge plumes of spray exploded and sailed over and into the boats and rowers. But the girls kept rowing.

As the boats approached the grandstands, I strained to see. Which boat was in the lead? Was it a close race? Who was in second? Finally, I could make out the white hull, white oar blades, black uniforms and white hats. I saw the “6” on Mary Bryan Barksdale’s back. Bowdoin. The girls, our girls, were in the lead, struggling against the wind.

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

As the boats passed the grandstands, it was a clear that Bowdoin was well ahead, ultimately finishing seven seconds before the University of Massachusetts. I still couldn’t see much. Pictures that I saw later showed that Katie and Courtney had broken into tears immediately upon finishing. The girls reached back and forward to hug the rower in front or in back of them. Race officials instructed the girls to row their boats to their docks as quickly as possible and to get off the water to avoid the dangerous weather. Ordinarily, the girls would have rowed back to the grandstands, gotten out of their boat, received medals and jackets and posed with a trophy. Before they rowed away, the girls all looked at us in the stands, held up their right wrists and pointed to the “WT” written there.

It took time for Margy and me to walk down to meet Katie. Debris was strewn across the regatta grounds now puddled with muddy water. Rowers, coaches, parents and spectators were soaked and spattered with mud. Margy and I walked quickly but took care not to fall or get hit by boats that the crews hauled back to racks and trailers. When we approached the Bowdoin Rowing tent, Katie ran toward us. She was crying.

She told us her story. After leaving the dock, it had rained on their way up to the start area but it wasn’t bad. Then, while waiting to line up, the rain intensified. Katie said that all at once it occurred to her: The lake at Wildflower had been dry, empty. Now she was in Philadelphia near where Warren had gone to school and the rain…it was Warren! The boats lined up to race but the officials held the start because of the bad weather. Then a small patch of sunlight opened up in the sky over the start area. (No such sunshine had been visible to Margy and me near the finish.) Katie thought it was Warren again, now with sunshine for her and her boat. The officials said “go.”

Katie said that it began to rain hard shortly after they had begun the race but that the wind had come up strongly, suddenly and without warning. At one point on the course, the wind had actually blown the boats backward. She said that the only good thing was that the wind had blown her boat backward less quickly than the other boats in her race. Sophie, Katie’s boat’s coxswain couldn’t see in the driving rain. She wasn’t sure that the girls could hear her directions in the wind. She ended up bailing water out of the boat believing that there was little else she could do. Meanwhile, the Bowdoin boat slowly pulled ahead and approached the finish. In the end, it took more than two minutes longer to finish the final than it had to finish the first heat (7:06 versus 9:09). Katie commented that it might have been the slowest winning time of any Dad Vail race in history.

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

 

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

 

Belief

Belief is the sincere conviction that something is true, even if you can’t prove it. Many times, whether what you believe is actually true doesn’t much matter. It’s what believing makes you do that counts.

Proving supernatural intervention is not so easy. That it was Warren who brought the rain missing from California back to Philadelphia seems unlikely. After all, I spent a lot of hours with Warren looking for things around his house that he wanted to pack for the trip to Wildflower but had forgotten exactly where they were. Giving him credit for a rainstorm and a brief view straight up through the clouds to the sun and heavens beyond seems like a bit of a stretch. But whether it’s true or not is entirely beside the point. Katie believed it was true.

In reaction to Warren’s death, Katie’s teammates rallied to her side. They offered her love and support. Suffering became a shared burden, ultimately more bearable together than if borne alone. That sadness brought the girls together; sadness transformed to strength.

Is there an afterlife? I don’t know how anyone could possibly prove it one way or another. What I do know, though, is that Warren’s influence extended beyond his lifetime and affected people he never met. Who would have ever guessed that Warren’s life and death would provide sadness, strength, inspiration and, ultimately, belief to a girls rowing team from a small college in Maine?

Last Thursday, the day before the Dad Vail Regatta, had someone asked all 1,839 of Bowdoin’s students whether they thought that their school’s women’s rowing team could defeat the likes of Penn State, UConn, Massachusetts, North Carolina State, Clemson, Northwestern, Villanova and 27 other schools, I bet that 1,834 would have said “no.” Of the five students who would have said “yes,” four of them grabbed oars and one sat in the coxswain’s seat. They were the five right girls in the right place at the right time. All five believed. And maybe they had more than a little help from a sixth person that four of them never met.

Happy Mother's Day, one day early.

Happy Mother’s Day, one day early.

After the race; still raining.

After the race; still raining. Left to right: Mary Bryan Barksdale, ’15, Courtney Payne, ’15, Sophie Berube, ’16, Emily Martin ’15, Katie Ross, ’14.

Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta 2014 Champions

Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta 2014 Champions

I don’t know if Elizabeth plans to have a funeral or memorial service for Warren. For me, looking out onto a windswept Schuylkill River and seeing five college girls absolutely overwhelmed with joy point to their wrists marked with “WT” is an awfully nice way to remember Warren. He was loved. He’ll be missed. He inspired.

 

Note: The photos above from Row2K.com are used without permission; provided, however, that I have ordered and paid for two sets of each print. 

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One Comment

  1. Rosser,

    I am truly mixed with emotions. I am so proud and excited for Katie! What a huge accomplishment, and for her team to support her with the WT on their wrists will be something never forgotten. Warren lived through that moment.
    I am so sorry to hear of Warren’s passing. Warren was a very dear friend to Margy and you and will be missed deeply by you both. As you said in your blog, it really is a blessing that he didn’t have to suffer any longer; he wasn’t living he was surviving. Cherish the memories of Warren, and know I am thinking of you all.

    Leds


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