JAMES CITY — As Tom Rooks made his way toward the Chickahominy Riverfront Park staging area in the latter portion of Sunday’s regatta, the Williamsburg Boat Club Juniors coach said the boat he was headed for would make him cry.
Amid the bustling activity of WBC hosting its first Eastern Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association spring regatta, Rooks was referring to a coed team of nine: coxswain Mitch de Jager, Peter Polansky, Logan Atkins, Spencer Rice, Nate Baker, Mallory Downey, Lilly de Jager, Jenna Alcorn and Sarah Wells. All but Baker are seniors, from various area high schools, and were about to carry their shell to the launching dock before setting out for their final mixed eight competition together.
Each has been with Rooks since the club was founded three years ago and most of them from the very start when there were only about a dozen rowers. Now, there are more than 60 that have helped WBC transform into a competitive club and the fastest growing one between Georgia and New Jersey.
Rooks nailed it. He got choked up.
Then his rowers dedicated the race to him.
“He talks a lot about how much this team means to him, but I don’t think we talk to him about how much he means to us,” Lilly de Jager said. “It’s definitely mutual. That race was for him.”
“He’s really special to all of us,” Alcorn said. “All of our coaches are. But just seeing him get that emotional over us — we figured we’d go out strong for him.”
They did, cruising to a win of about three boat lengths on a cool and overcast day on the Chickahominy against Hickory High of Chesapeake and Princess Anne High of Virginia Beach.
This particular team does not necessarily define WBC Juniors’ improving success. Some of the other varsity men’s and women’s groupings even have the potential to qualify for nationals following the upcoming regional race in New Jersey. The mixed eights team does not normally practice together, and the race was more or less about having fun before the rowers’ competitive spirit took over on the water.
But the mixed team represents to Rooks and coach Graham Ludmer everything they sought to help instill when the club was established. The only pep talk they need now from Rooks is, “Row in a manner worthy of those you are rowing with.”
“They love each other and they love the sport, so we don’t have to push them,” Rooks said. “… If you can get high school kids to care about each other in that type of way, everything else is going to be fine.”
Ludmer said the club could have assembled an all-star coaching staff and it would have meant nothing without the dedication of the originals. “The inclusiveness, the positivity that those kids brought — it just wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “It wouldn’t have worked without the attitudes that those kids have.”
Winning may be secondary in WBC, but it is worth noting the caliber of rowers it is developing. None of those seniors had any experience in a shell before joining the club. Several have since developed into NCAA Division I recruits and others intend to compete at the club level in college.
WBC formerly used other programs as measuring sticks, even though acquiring adequate apparatus is still a work in progress for the Williasmburg outfit. Now, other programs are stacking themselves up against the Williamsburg composite team.
“We are winning back-to-back varsity men’s and women’s races every regatta we go to. Now we are becoming that team,” Ludmer said before cautioning, “I wouldn’t say we are there across the board yet.”
One of the challenges for WBC going forward is one that faces clubs in about every other sport: how to suit the needs of the serious competitors with collegiate aspirations with ones seeking only a recreational outlet. And Rooks, who has two children in the club, wants to be sure to serve both.
Then there are those students that are perhaps in between like Lafayette High sophomore Joshua Findley, who Rooks believes has the potential to row on the collegiate level, though Findley has not fully entertained that aspiration. Instead, Findley focuses on meeting tangible challenges each practice and the satisfaction that goes along with meeting them.
“I like the idea of a sport where you can be aggressive, but you can work with people at the same time,” Findley said. “There’s no anger or frustration in the community. Every rower gets along. And every rower gets along with the coxswain even though they don’t necessarily row.”
Those are exactly the type of words Rooks wants to hear since he is just as likely to berate a winning team as a losing one. The quality of the row is more important to the Coast Guardsman. More important than that to him, is the quality of the person grasping the oars.
“I’m not trying to build an elite high school rowing team,” Rooks said. “I’m trying to build men and women. Success for me will be when I get an invite to their wedding and when they are 40 and still rowing — and that in life, they’re OK.”
Judging by the pensive nature in which the mixed boat members fielded questions about their club, with no coaches present to critique their answers, Rooks will have plenty of weddings to attend in the future. The students continue to embrace the philosophies of their coaches.
“We’re not eight rowers,” Baker said. “We’re one boat.”
Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.