When the Central Catholic crew team learned it had won the Scholastic Rowing Association of America regatta May 29, its rowers yelled and jumped around their Philadelphia hotel room. A few minutes later, though, they felt dissatisfied.

“We were kind of left with, ‘Well, it doesn’t feel like we won,’” said Owen O’Malley, a senior at the Pittsburgh private school. “After that initial excitement wore off, we were just kind of confused as to why they made that decision.”

The SRAA canceled the championship races because of weather, and despite holding boys’ varsity eight semifinal races the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the SRAA originally awarded medals based on the teams’ times in their quarterfinal races the previous day. Although Central Catholic posted the best time Friday, it recorded the fifth-best time Saturday on the 1,500-meter Schuylkill River course in Philadelphia.

Central Catholic Coach Jay Hammond and the team’s rowers did what they felt was right. Minutes after receiving gold medals, they handed them to the District’s St. Albans, which posted the event’s fastest time Saturday.

“I didn’t take it that we won,” Hammond said. “I sort of thought to myself, ‘That’s not the right outcome, so I don’t accept it.’ ”

In 2018, O’Malley was a member of Central Catholic’s freshman eight team, which placed third at the SRAA regatta. Since then, he and his teammates were focused on winning the varsity eight.

But O’Malley admitted he would cringe if he placed this year’s gold medal next to that bronze medal on his bedside table because he didn’t believe he deserved the honor. The Vikings may have rowed the best time in Friday’s quarterfinals (4 minutes 19.17 seconds), but their time of 4:06.90 on Saturday wasn’t even the best in their heat.

When St. Albans rowers prepared for Saturday morning’s semifinal race, they expected the championships that afternoon would be canceled because everyone around them was shivering in the rain. They went all out and finished in a meet-best 4:02.80. When they learned the championships wouldn’t occur soon after the race, St. Albans athletes hugged and sprinted around the bike path near the river, believing they had won.

“We were celebrating full out,” St. Albans senior Grayson Grigorian said. “To us, we were the national champions at that point, and we were celebrating like it.”

For four years, Grigorian had dreamed of splashing the river’s water in triumph at a national championship meet. Senior Harry Irwin, meanwhile, watched Wilson celebrate the 2019 championship in Nashport, Ohio, and envisioned himself earning that honor. Additionally, Coach Ted Haley had attempted to win the SRAA regatta almost every year since starting the St. Albans program in 1994, and he thought this year’s squad was one of his best. The Bulldogs believed their dreams were about to be realized.

After packing up their equipment, the St. Albans rowers returned to their school bus. There, they read a tweet from the SRAA that stated Friday’s results would decide the champions. At first, rowers were in disbelief, but that soon turned into anger as they yelled across the bus. They received bronze medals for posting the third-fastest time Friday (4:21.38). Haley said organizers told his team Saturday’s races shouldn’t have occurred because of the weather.

St. Albans’s drive to its hotel in Philadelphia was quiet. Meanwhile, Central Catholic coaches found a St. Albans coach and surrendered the medals. St. Albans rowers felt a sense of relief and some cried when news of the gesture reached them.

“I don’t like to feel like I was handed something I didn’t deserve,” Irwin said. “But I thought about it a lot and went back to my hotel room and was sitting there; I was like: ‘In my mind, we won that race. So I have no problem taking that gold medal.’ ”

Two days later, at Thompson Boat Center in Northwest Washington, St. Albans gave its bronze medals to Bethesda-Chevy Chase, which posted the third-best time Saturday but didn’t place in the top three of Friday’s races. Gonzaga posted the second-best time both days, so its rowers kept their silver medals.

Grigorian and Irwin filed an appeal to the SRAA, which this week admitted it made a mistake. It reversed its decision, using Saturday’s times to decide the winners. Thanks to an act of sportsmanship, though, the St. Albans rowers already felt like winners.

“It doesn’t matter who they give the medals to,” Grigorian said last week. “We know we’re the national champions.”

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