The topsy turvy week of the Northeastern Men’s Crew Team
Photo: Igor Belikovskiy/Scullingfool photos
By all accounts, the “holiday” week in Boston was a long one, but for the Northeastern men’s rowing team, the roller coaster ride ended with a long sought upset victory on Saturday, the very same day the Boston Red Sox wrapped up an emotional win in their return to Fenway.
On Patriots Day, most students in Beantown generally wake up early, have a few beers and parade along the marathon route and cheer on the runners—so Monday’s madness struck particularly close. And while many of their classmates were in the thick of the terror, the rowers of Northeastern happened to be traveling from campus to practice on a team bus.
Usually a short ride, the chaos following the explosions turned it into a 45-minute journey.
“We could see the city, we could see the pandemonium setting in,” said Ryan Rosts, 21, of St. Catherine’s, Ontario. “We had to do our own evacuation route.”
They detoured around the city to make it to the Henderson Boat House along the Charles River in Brighton, Mass.
“We didn’t even know what the full story was at the time,” said captain and Vermont native Tyler Underhill, 22. “Twitter, Reddit, everything was coming out with a lot of things that weren’t true, and some things that were. We kept hearing there might be more bombs around the city.”
They finally made it to the boathouse, which, said head coach John Pojednic, “we felt like was the best place for them to be logistically.” Safe and out of harm’s way, the rowers convened for an indoor practice.
What followed was, in the words of Rosts, “Remember the Titans-esque,” with coach Pojednic calling out to his rowers, “Who are we?”
“We are Northeastern! We are Boston!” the 40 odd athletes chanted back in unison.
“You get a little unity from that, all that emotion channeling in a positive way,” said Rosts. “No one was directly injured, but it was obviously very jarring, knowing it could have been any one of us. All of us, at one point or another that day, being along the marathon course.”
From Tuesday to Thursday, Northeastern students, like the rest of Boston and America, remained glued to the news. A student vigil took place Tuesday evening, and President Joseph Aoun notified the community that three students were hospitalized with serious injuries.
Nevertheless, life seemed to be returning to its regular minutiae (save a few differences).
“Boston is a pretty resilient town,” Pojednic said. “From our perspective, there was a heightened state of vigilance, but things went back to normal pretty quickly. I dropped my wife off at work Tuesday morning, and there were Humvees and SWAT teams, but it’s not like we were on a lockdown. Things were pretty normal. Until the incident on Thursday night.”
Students went to bed that evening, expecting to take final exams the next morning. Instead, they woke to terror and a citywide lockdown. And for the rowers, their boathouse, which had been a safe haven from the bombs and IEDs on Monday, became part of the shootout crime scene. Henderson Boathouse sits exactly one mile away from where the Chechan brothers exchanged gunfire and grenades with swarms of police officers.
Back on campus, most students followed the news from inside.
“It was just frightening,” said Northeastern student, Gabby Desonne, 19, who mustered up the courage to leave her apartment. “It was eerie seeing a place you know and love that is usually hustle and bustle. I rode my bike over by Copley, the public gardens. It was just frightening. It looked post-apocalyptic to be quite honest with you.”
The rowers had a decision to make. For weeks they had been preparing for a trip to Providence on Saturday in order race Brown, the no. 2 team in the nation in 2012.
“We’re thinking in hour long time blocks now, not days and weeks,” Pojednic told his captains during the day.
Shortly after the citywide lockdown was lifted at 6:00 pm, he told them to organize a team meeting. Then he went for a run, “to blow off some steam.”
“I was crossing Elliot Bridge (crossing over from Boston to Watertown), when literally hundreds of blacked out, tinted out cars with blue and red lights went flying in the direction of Watertown,” he said.
By the time he got back home, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was surrounded, and his team had decided they wanted to race, no matter what. Even if it meant loading their boats just across the river from a war zone.
“We want to race for Boston,” they told him.
But shortly before 9 p.m., intently listening to their police scanner smartphone apps, they and their fellow students knew that was all a formality. “We got him,” they heard. That’s when students began rushing out onto Hemenway Street and Mission Hill.
Flavia Weston, a 20-year-old Northeastern student from England felt more than a little patriotic, with upwards of a thousand people in each location, she estimated.
“The Boston police went through on motorcycles and everyone was cheering for them. They didn’t break up the crowd,” she said. “They were taking photos with us, and giving everyone hugs. Everyone was singing the national anthem. Repetitively. Chanting, ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ and Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye to the terrorist.”
The party lasted until 4 in the morning.
But the next day, the Husky rowers put their game faces on and came down to the choppy Seekonk River for a different kind of battle. This one would be settled by strength of the will.
The two crews sprinted down the river, never more than two to three seconds apart. Northeastern was the underdog going into the race having not beaten Brown since 2005. But they surprised the Bears off the line with a very strong push. And at the end of the two-kilometer contest, the two boats were separated by five-tenths of a second, with Northeastern crossing the finish line just a few feet in front.
“We are Northeastern, we are Boston, we’re going to stick together,” was the message that Pojednic said his rowers ran with. “There’s a blogger who put a picture of us on his blog Tuesday morning rowing in Boston with an awesome caption which said, ‘Here’s 27 of the thousands of people who laced up their running shoes, picked up their oars, hopped on their bike, and went back on Tuesday morning. Because they are not scared. Because whoever did this should be.’ That was sort of the tone of the week in town.”
And as much as it pains me to say that those Northeastern rowers from Boston took down my alma mater and former teammates, as a Bostonian, I can say that if there was a day for them it do it, it was this one. Boston strong.