Henry Walch was in shock and had no other options, so he stood on a railway bridge on the Schuylkill River and raised his hand calmly.
Instead of preparing for the boys’ first four final at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, Walch and his Lake Braddock teammates were trying to make sense of the one-second margin of defeat that ended their day in a semifinal heat at the prestigious Philadelphia competition.
For Walch, this wasn’t just a question. This was a protest. The senior and his teammates were dejected. So as the leader of the rowing team, raising his hand meant calling over a race official to ask this: Why were they hit by a man-made wake in the final 100 meters of the race, causing their boat to flood with water?
“We were so close to moving onto finals,” Walch said. “And then to have that happen? We were just all shocked.”
Walch and his teammates pleaded with referee James Hill, telling him that the wave hit the boat and slowed its progress near the finish line. Hill said he didn’t see the wake. It was caused after another official had cut across the course’s lanes in a motor-boat prior to the final leg of the race, and by the time the six teams approached the last 100 meters, the wake’s turbulence was strongest at Lane 1 near the shore, where Lake Braddock was positioned. The Bruins missed qualifying for the final by one second.
Competing in the final at the world’s oldest scholastic regatta, would have been a rare feat for Lake Braddock’s first four, a team that regularly finished at the bottom of local meets a year ago. But after Hill delivered the crushing news that their run at the event was over, the Bruins accomplished something even more rare: The five teammates told Hill that they respected his decision. They thanked him for his time. And then they just walked away.
“We live in a time when there is violence, and people don’t accept bad news with good grace,” Hill said. “And I found Lake Braddock crew to be remarkable in that.”
Hill, who has served as a crew official for a quarter-century and has been refereeing at Stotesbury since the early 1990s, found the Bruins’ sportsmanship to be such a revelation last month that he donated his small $100 stipend from Stotesbury to the team. He usually gives it to a racing Web site.
Hill lives in Philadelphia, and he has been on the water long enough to endure angry protests and attacks on the officiating. He’s aware that physical attacks against refs by youths and parents across the country continue to pop up year by year, including the recent assault by a Utah teenage soccer player that resulted in an official’s death earlier this spring.
So when he was called over by the five members of the Bruins crew team, he didn’t know what to expect. But what he also didn’t know was that the team was an upstanding reflection of its coach, Patrick Gillen, a 30-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who joined the program two years ago and helped lead the girls’ first eight to a Virginia state championship in his first season. The first-four boys’ team, composed of seniors Walch and Joe Turmel, junior Murphy Liang, sophomore Jake Hodges and junior coxswain Kelly Valette, has been more of a project on the water.
But off it? Gillen expected his team to be much more. Racing in a place like Philadelphia is difficult, he said, where “tough personalities” are commonplace even at a rowing event. Crew is traditionally considered a gentlemanly sport, but that doesn’t stop teenagers from being teenagers, and cussing and arguing with officials is often present, he said.
Gillen was following the race from his bike, but didn’t see the wake. The last portion of the course running alongside the river is interrupted by a bridge, and he was as puzzled as his kids after they crossed the finished line.
“There was really nothing they could do about it,” Gillen said. “That was that. And we get home, and the official actually tracked me down and e-mailed me.”
It was Hill, who congratulated Gillen on the character of Walch, Turmel, Valette, Liang and Hodges, writing in the e-mail, that the team was “unfailingly polite and well-spoken.” He offered the money that was given to him after spending 13 hours on the water that day.
“He didn’t have to do that. We left a good impression on him, so I’m glad he did,” Walch said. “It was a good way to cap off the whole year. . . even though we didn’t get second, I’m still proud of the guys on the boat.”
The token of appreciation won’t be lost on Gillen or the team. The following week after Stotesbury, one of Lake Braddock’s boats was damaged in a car accident near Camden, N.J., en route to a regatta. The money might be put toward the costs of a new vessel, Gillen said. He will be moving to California this summer after being re-assigned by the Navy. Walch will head to Florida Tech for his freshman year of college, where he’ll continue rowing.
And Hill? He’ll likely be back at Stotesbury next year, hoping to float upon another Lake Braddock.
“Truth be told, I had to go on the Web to find out where Lake Braddock was,” Hill said. “I wanted them to know how much I respected the way they behaved.”