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Learning to Thrive From Tragedy

BY FRANK FITZPATRICK
PHOTOS PROVIDED

On a Friday afternoon in January, in two places separated geographically by 1,300 miles and meteorologically by at least 50 degrees, the challenges Andrea Landry would have to confront as the new women’s rowing coach at the College of Holy Cross were painfully evident.

In Worcester, Mass., where Covid-19 concerns had halted all Crusader practices and nearly vacated the 50-acre campus, Landry was forced to utilize Zoom to address a team still smarting physically and emotionally from an unimaginable tragedy exactly 12 months earlier.

Meanwhile, at that moment in Vero Beach, Fla., as mourners reverently dropped pink carnations into the Indian River, several local crews rowed silently past the Merrill P. Barber Bridge. It was a moving memorial to what had transpired at an intersection there exactly one year ago, when a van carrying the Holy Cross women rowers–in Florida on a practice trip–was struck by a pickup truck.

That crash killed Grace Rett, a sophomore rower, on the day after her 20th birthday. It also seriously injured several of her Crusader teammates. In its messy aftermath, lawsuits were filed, and longtime women’s coach Patrick Diggins, who had been driving the van, retired.

That combination of trauma and seclusion spread like a pall over the program that Landry took control of in July when, after a career as a successful UMass rower and coach, she was hired by Holy Cross to succeed Diggins. 

Despite its challenges, the new job was a welcome homecoming for Landry, a native of nearby Shrewsbury and the married mother of a 2-year-old daughter. Lake Quinsigamond, the Crusaders’ home course, was where as an awkward seventh-grader she’d discovered the sport while attending one of her older brother’s races, and where she first touched oar to water.

“I saw my brother’s crew carrying the boats over their heads and down to the dock, and right away my interest was sparked,” she said. “But by my freshman year in high school, I still didn’t have the maturity, athletic ability, or bravery to try out.”

She found those assets a year later, made the team at Shrewsbury High, and ever since has devoted her life to the sport. Now she will need all that and probably more as she takes control of a rusty, shell-shocked Holy Cross team, one that ended its last complete season by finishing eighth in the 2018-19 Patriot League Championships. 

“With any traumatic experience, it’s inevitable for there to be some residual pain and grieving,” Landry said after the team finally reassembled in February. “But the women have presented themselves each morning wanting to work. A motto they created last spring prior to the Covid shutdown and continue to embody is `Love the Fight.’ You can see that in their eagerness to learn more about their training, in the attitudes they bring to 6 a.m. practices six days a week, in asking constantly if they’ll have a chance to test a 2K and have the chance to race.

“Let’s face it,” she said, “that tragedy remains the elephant in the room. I told them that I will never pretend to understand or know what their experience has been like. It was a very traumatic event, and there still are a handful of women on our roster who are working through what you can see on the surface, rehabbing from the injuries they suffered. But these women are also still grieving for their teammate, Grace Rett. What we’re trying to do moving forward is figure out what to do with those emotions. We have to figure out what is important in terms of their recovery process, their healing process.”  

One of the solutions they developed was to honor and emulate the strengths exhibited by Rett, an athlete so determined that just weeks before her death she set a world record by rowing indoors on a machine for 62 consecutive hours.

“We’ve kind of determined that there were some qualities Grace brought to the team that were very apparent, not just to the athletes but to the community, to the parents, to the alumni.”

As a result, the Crusaders grouped those values into an acronym, GRACE (Gratitude, Resilience, Accountability, Resilience, and Accountability), that will serve as their foundation moving forward.

“Part of my job as a coach is to take these values and create an environment where these women can bring them to light,” Landry said. “When things are hard, we can talk about why accountability matters. We can do some team-bonding talking about how we can respect each other and bring enthusiasm to what we do. … There’s a great opportunity here for this team to thrive. We have wonderful resources. And it’s a great group of women.”

“Part of my job as a coach is to take these values and create an environment where these women can bring them to light,” Landry said. “When things are hard, we can talk about why accountability matters. We can do some team-bonding talking about how we can respect each other and bring enthusiasm to what we do. … There’s a great opportunity here for this team to thrive. We have wonderful resources. And it’s a great group of women.”

– Andrea Landry

After addressing that delicate subject in her first remote meeting, Landry confronted the other issue that continues to cloud her team’s prospects: Covid-19. Life is messy, she told her rowers, and the virus is a part of life. If they learned to adapt and overcome its considerable hurdles, they’d emerge better rowers and better people.

“We were very realistic about how they could they do that,” Landry said. “For example, we suggested training they could do at home. We know everyone has different resources, different financial limitations. Not everyone could get to a gym, not everyone has a small boat. They know this season won’t be the same, but I think we’re hanging on. I think we’re in a good place.”

The Crusaders team Landry inherited will be captained by Anne Comcowich, Carrie Malatesta, and Josie Ascione. Its other significant contributors, the coach said, figure to be Maddy Downey, Claire D’Attoma, Lauren Colby, and Ellen Anne Foy.

The rowers couldn’t return to campus and reassemble until Feb. 1. Even then, college, state, and Center for Disease Control guidelines seriously restricted what they could do. The Crusaders’ daily workouts were confined to the walkway above the Hart Center’s basketball court. There, masked up and 14 feet apart from each other, they practiced on rowing machines, building stamina for a season that may or may not take place.

“We’ll be on the earth, building our base,” Landry said. “We’re not going to be focusing hard on the specifics of racing or technique. It’s just going to be about building our base, getting our volume in, getting to know each other.

“For now, we’re here and we’re grateful. But I’m a realist. We’re still in a pandemic. Things will happen. But we’re doing what is in our control to prevent any team-wide shutdowns. We’ll revisit protocols for rowing on Lake Q once we cross that bridge.”

Like most collegiate crews, the Crusaders haven’t competed since the pandemic struck last March. Their fall season was canceled, and as of late February, they weren’t yet sure what the spring would look like. Landry said it was possible they could resume racing as early as March 27, and a few meets have been penciled in. She also said her team “expects to be on the Cooper River” for the Patriot League Championships in May.

This environment of uncertainty couldn’t be more different from the remarkably consistent one she inhabited at Amherst as a rower and coach. A walk-on at UMass, one whose grit and devotion to fundamentals made up for a shortage of natural ability, she helped the women rowers capture three Atlantic 10 titles. In 2009, Landry became a graduate assistant and rose steadily– from recruiting director, to assistant coach, to assistant head coach, to acting coach when the successful program’s longtime head, Jim Dietz, stepped down in 2019.

During her tenure on Dietz’s rowing staff, UMass women won three more Atlantic 10 titles, three Dad Vail Regatta championships, and made it to three NCAA championships.

“As a coach, the thing that made her special was that she immediately realized coaching was not all about wins and losses,” said Dietz. “It was about the athletes. She communicates well with her athletes, and they quickly come to realize that she has their backs.”

As for the difficult situation she stepped into in Worcester, Dietz predicted Landry’s experiences in rowing would help both her and her team.

“One thing you learn from rowing,” he said, “is how to endure. There are no timeouts, just preparation every day for the challenges you meet.”

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