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Fortitude in the Solitude

PHOTOS AND STORY BY ED MORAN

It’s mid-March in Boston, Wednesday, just before 5 a.m., and three days after clocks were turned forward for daylight savings time. It’s dark. It’s cold, somewhere just above 20 degrees. A warm week is followed by a return to January conditions. Ice is forming again along the banks of the Charles River, not enough to choke it off, but enough to accentuate the temperatures of the past few days.

In several student dorms on the campus of Boston University, alarm clocks are sounding time to wake up. If ever there were a morning when the thought of rolling over and waiting for the sun to warm the day could be excused, this would be it.

Such a temptation, however, is fleeting, for the students climbing out of their warm beds are athletes, rowers on BU’s men’s team, and there is an actual practice set for this morning. On the water. In eights.

Ask the 34 athletes scheduled to row what they are thinking when the alarm sounds on a day like this, and nearly all answer the same way: “I can’t wait to get there.”

This March morning, like similar mornings March a year ago, exists in the era of Covid-19, the pandemic that stopped everything for most of the last 12 months. There was no rowing last spring. Or summer. Or fall.

The Charles River hasn’t seen a collegiate team practicing in eights in, well, forever.

But now, and for the last few weeks, there is practice. The crew season is back, under strict safety protocols and very different circumstances. The virus is not gone. Life is not normal. There is no certainty that there will be another morning for rowing, or school.

The virus has a stubborn way of dictating what can and cannot take place, or if a new surge will shut down life again.

BU’s Covid-mitigation protocols have kept students tethered mostly to their small rooms, getting tested every three days. Cold and dark are not conditions to complain about, especially when boats and teammates–other people–are waiting at the DeWolfe Boathouse on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, just a short walk across the BU Bridge from Boston.

“Of course, not many people like to wake up at 4:50 in the morning,” said BU sophomore Paul Seiters. “But for my part, I can say that my thought is: Look, you are extremely privileged to live in this current situation, to have this testing protocol, to be able to row. If you don’t take advantage of it, it would be disrespectful to everybody else.

“So I get out of bed and get my coffee and go. And to be honest, Boston in the morning is beautiful. It’s absolutely stunning going out there in the morning hours, with the skyline in the background. So I see it as an extreme privilege, especially with the rowing setup we have here. I’m happy about it every morning.”

If he’s not already there before the alarm clocks go off, head coach Tom Bohrer is making his way into the city from his home in Concord, Mass. He needs to get things ready, set the lineups, check to make sure everything is in place for a smooth morning where students get into the boathouse, stretch, get the oars and boats out, and get off the dock and on the water, quickly, efficiently, safely. They must launch in small groups, timed so there’s not a lot of mingling in the boat bays or on the docks.

Training is not the same as it was before Covid. For months last spring and summer, some of it was done remotely, individually, on Zoom calls among teammates across the country and the world. When students returned to campus in the fall, there was erging on the docks and rowing in singles, all while masks covered their faces. Just breathing was challenging.

In February, after winter break, the athletes broke into training groups –three pods of 10–based in part on whether they lived together. Small bubbles of students moved in and out of the boathouse and weight room, seeing the other pods only in passing. There were pauses when contact tracing involved someone on the team, or when a student felt ill. On those days, the rowers trained separately. They ran. They used bags filled with sand for weight training.

For Bohrer, the last months of his 12th year at BU, and the beginning of his 13th spring, have been about getting through, living in the moment, and taking every single day one at a time.

For Bohrer, the last months of his 12th year at BU, and the beginning of his 13th spring, have been about getting through, living in the moment, and taking every single day one at a time.

But now, rowing is back. There are races scheduled, the first one a dual against Holy Cross two weekends from this Wednesday morning. Bohrer and his staff have led his team through the past 12 months and gotten them all to this point safely. He has enough athletes to fill three eights, certainly a smaller squad than he’s used to.

Some athletes, especially international students, have opted out this season. But for those who are on campus, the boathouse is open. They have endured together, even though they have remained in small groups. They follow the guidelines with pride and determination and are frequently tested. The result to date: zero cases. And there is racing!

This is the story of how Boston University’s men’s rowing team has handled itself, how its members have existed through the pandemic, and the bond they have formed during their shared experience.

A Motto to Rally Around

To call Tom Bohrer competitive is an understatement. He’s a two-time Olympic silver medalist and 1992 Olympic-team captain. He rowed on the U.S. national team from 1986 to 1994, before stepping out of his competitive career and moving to coaching.

In a typical year, Bohrer begins mapping a course he hopes will guide his crews through the dual-racing season and into what he always hopes will be a spot in the finals, and a top place overall, at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship Regatta.

Like any top collegiate coach, Bohrer searches the country, and the world, for the best recruits. Then, each fall, he begins training and developing the squad, making plans for the spring racing season. He moves guys around, changes boat combinations, looks for athletes who mesh to create speed.

This year, of course, has not been normal. Bohrer’s only option was to adapt, to rethink priorities, to lead with strength, but also to guide with understanding. When the shutdown began, his role was making sure athletes were doing something to get through, emotionally and physically. He sent training plans and kept in touch. Whereas in most years he did his best to connect with his athletes, this year staying connected would become the priority–an experience that has changed him.

“Absolutely,” Bohrer said. “This year, I think about not getting ahead of myself, and staying in the moment more than ever, making sure that I know what my guys are thinking. Not assuming things.”

When the shutdown began last spring, Bohrer worked to stay in touch with his athletes and encouraged them to stay in touch with each other and find ways to train and set goals. He also came up with a motto they could rally around: “Fortitude in the solitude.”

As he did all that, he worked to make a plan, several plans in fact, for when the campus and training facilities would reopen. His planning had less to do with reaching championship speed than keeping the team moving forward, finding ways for individual improvement.

“The difference this year has been that even with Covid, we should not let it dominate how we think and go about things, or use it as an excuse. If we can’t lift weights in the weight room, why can’t we get stronger? If we can’t row and need to do sandbag circuits instead, why can’t we do them in good form, push limits, and build aerobic capacity? We adapt and embrace the opportunity we have. It’s a decision to say: Yes, I can do this!”

“In some ways, I’ve become a better coach. I’ve been telling the guys to be more flexible and ready for changes. And I’ve become a better planner. We have a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C.

“I hope my guys have seen that my emotions are pretty steady, even when things don’t look great. They’re looking at me not to lose my cool, and the guys have really responded. They have all made choices and given a lot. And I see a lot of joy in what we are doing.”

Making Choices

From the moment the pandemic hit, every member of Bohrer’s crew had to make difficult decisions–sit out and train at home or come back to strict university Covid protocols, testing, masking, and isolation. About 10 did not return for spring 2021. But 34 did, and despite the difficulties, they’ve enjoyed their shared experience.

Freshman Stefan Scornavacca, Harvard, Massachusetts.

Scornavacca, a high-school senior and captain of his team, was heading into a promising final spring season when word came that his school was closing.

“We left in March and never returned to in-person classes,” Scornavacca said. “Then I transitioned right to BU at the end of the summer.”

When he got to Boston, Scornavacca was assigned to a freshman dorm with two-person rooms and reported to practice two weeks later. He was assigned to a pod with 10 other freshmen and trained only with that group.

Freshmen are not allowed into upper-class dorms, so interaction outside the group was limited. But that made the bond within his class closer.

“We tried to hang out together and make sure we were accountable, doing our own workouts,” Scornavacca said. “We went on lots of freshman runs.”

When Thanksgiving break came, Scornavacca went home, and the university urged anyone who left school to stay home until second semester began in February. Once back on campus, he resumed winter training in the same pod.

Despite the challenges of being in a tight bubble, the team has been doing what it can to gel, Scornavacca said. Every freshman was assigned an upper-class mentor, and team bonds began forming.

“It’s been pretty cool, especially getting to know the guys. There have been a lot of challenges, but we got used to embracing uncertainty. We have been dealing with this for the last year or so now. We came with the hope that we would have training and racing and we tried to come in with an open mind to whatever we could to get going.”

An early challenge arose last fall when a student in the freshman dorm tested positive. Although the student was not on the team, Scornavacca had been in contact with him and had to quarantine for 14 days.

“That was pretty tough, because I was alone. I tried to stay in contact with my teammates to make sure that my training was still going and that I was improving at whatever I could each and every day.”

That’s now behind him, and he is back on the water. He takes all but one class online in his room and spends nearly three-quarters of his time on campus there as well.

“I’m just excited to get going, especially in the team boats. That’s what we came to do. I have not personally rowed in an eight before this semester for a year and a half. I was very, very excited to get back into it.

“I’m trying to take it one day at a time. I have expectations for what I can do myself, but I just try to enjoy what I’m doing and get through it.

“The team culture has been amazing so far. We are the closest-knit team I’ve ever been a part of, especially our freshman class. Covid has made us closer than ever. It’s been pretty cool.

“I never expected this, but my thoughts are: I’m a freshman. This is just my first year, and I still have lots to look forward to.”

Sophomore Paul Seiters, Osnabrück, Germany.

Seiters was optimistic about the coming season. In 2019, the team had had a solid performance at the Head of the Charles and a good late-fall training period, and 2020 spring training was in full swing. They were at Clemson on the spring-training trip, rowing in eights, making progress.

Then came news of the coronavirus outbreak. “It was like a little thing somewhere. We knew there was something going on, but it was no different from Ebola or other epidemics at that point,” Seiters said.

“Over the course of a week, everything started to ramp up exponentially, and suddenly it was announced that the university would not be attended in person. That was a very uncertain time. After that, I headed back to Germany.”

 A three-time under-23 German national-team athlete, Seiters was able to train at the German Olympic training center until Germany went into a two-month lockdown. He went back to the training center when it opened again. “I got workouts in there. I trained a little bit with the national team, following Covid measures and being careful.”

While some of his international teammates remained home, Seiters went back to BU in February when the campus opened.

“For me, it was not really difficult, because I consider my teammates friends. Of course, there was a risk evaluation. I understood there would be special behaviors I was not accustomed to before, like wearing masks all day, limiting social contact.

“But that is the commitment we made coming back. We knew the rules; they were communicated clearly. Everybody knew what they signed up for.”

Part of the athletic department’s protocols included testing every three days, and that helped Seiters make his decision.

“I get paid to come to this university, to row for this university, and even though there is a pandemic, I still think it is my duty. It also is fun to be here, be with the team, and produce for the team.”

Seiters and his teammates have learned to live with uncertainty. There have been times when they have gone to the boathouse only to learn there was going to be a contact-tracing pause.

“A lot of this is good judgment and initiative by the athletes, but it is also mandated by the university. The university has excellent protocols in place to limit our practice together when they think there’s a risk.

“The best way to get through this all is thinking day to day. I’m happy every day I can be in the boathouse. I’m happy every day I can be at the university and have little successes. If at the end of the day, I can say, I got through this without any major incidents, I got through this with a lot of fun with my teammates, then it was a good day.”

Junior Harrison Steck, Decatur, Illinois.

Steck is not shy about admitting that he sometimes thinks about hitting the snooze button.

“People are lying if they tell you that every morning when that alarm goes off, and you know you have to walk over the BU Bridge when it’s 22 degrees, that they don’t think about it.” Steck laughs, adding quickly that the experience builds character and is rewarding.

“Once we get to the boathouse, it is high energy every single day. We’ve got good music going, and everybody is excited to be there to get some good training in. The coaches have done a phenomenal job keeping us motivated. We’ve got a whole training support staff. We’ve got people we can reach out to, whether that’s the physical trainers or somebody for academics.”

After the university shut down last spring, Steck went home to Illinois and stayed. “I was worried that the restrictions were going to be such that I wouldn’t be able to get effective training.

“I just stayed home and trained on my own. I thought we were going to be shut down and sent home again, and I was worried we wouldn’t be able to train. But that didn’t happen and has yet to happen this spring.

“It’s definitely had its challenges. We have to do everything the normal college student does, and then we have to push ourselves that much further to follow the guidelines, to stay social-distanced, stay in our own bubble.

“If one kid gets it on our team, it’s pretty much going to take down the entire program. It’s been hard, but at the same time, the entire group has really rallied behind the common mission of us all avoiding getting the coronavirus. And it’s kind of nice to be in a group of people who want to be here and work hard and do our best.

“Actually, it’s been fun to see people’s character and test ourselves. We’ve been given an opportunity to step back and evaluate what we do, to ask what we can do differently. We’ve done some different training, especially with ergs. It’s hard to do with a mask on constantly, so we’ve adapted. We’ve brought in sandbags, and do sandbag workouts. We do a lot more running than we used to, and it’s been fun to step back and say: We have these challenges, but how do we navigate them?”

Senior Captain Michael Boston, Lower Gwynedd, Pennsylvania.

After rowing for eight consecutive seasons through high school and then college, a senior about to end his competitive rowing career can be forgiven for thinking less about rowing and more about life after school.

For Michael Boston, it’s not that rowing had become a burden but that the repetitiveness and predictability had made it seem stale. One surprising result of the pandemic: It enabled Boston and other veterans of the sport to hit “Refresh.”

Boston seconds Coach Bohrer’s observation about “seeing a lot of joy.”

“We have been going through this copy-and-paste formula for the past three years. We knew what we were training for. Racing in eights, we go through these training programs and we execute them. And you pretty much do the same training plan for the three years, maybe making a change here and there.

“But this year, it’s completely different. There was no racing in the fall, and so coach had an opportunity to go back to the building blocks of what our training is about and what it’s for when it comes to getting on the water.

“It definitely was refreshing, and unexpected. My most fun time at BU is this year, and our winter training, which is usually a time when you put your head down and get through it.

“We were really able to revive ourselves and try something new that was successful. Every day, kids were coming in and having a good time and were excited. It’s something I hadn’t seen in a while. Being able to do something new at the end of my time here was rejuvenating.”

Which is not to say the pandemic has been easy. When the team returned to BU after the Clemson training trip, Boston stayed one night, packed what he could, and flew home.

When it came time to decide whether to come back, Boston didn’t hesitate, even though he knew it would mean remote learning and staying in his four-person dorm room “80 percent of the time.”

“I was pretty much just in my house from March to September anyway,” Boston said. “So hearing we could have something of a fall season and get out on the water and train as a team, without a doubt I was excited to get back to school.”

Fall training, the Head of the Charles, and the spring racing season are Boston’s favorite times in crew, and he has missed one of each.

“In the fall, I definitely battled a sense of loss,” he said. “There were times when we were doing work in singles and I was thinking: We’re collegiate rowers, we row in eights! What’s the point? I felt like we were missing out. This isn’t what it’s supposed to be.

“But you take a second and you realize: It’s not like anyone else has an option. We’re all in the same boat. The sense of loss does come sometimes, but I just have to realize there’s still an end goal in sight.”

Staying focused on that goal has been easier because he’s one of the team captains. Boston has tried to unite a team separated into training groups with limited time together, and that requires good communication.

 “I have relationships with almost everyone on the team,” said Boston, “and that’s enabled me to communicate the coaches’ ideas, the team’s ideas, and to get across to everyone accountability. I feel like we’ve been able to stay really interconnected.”

At the end of this semester, Boston is headed into the “regular work world.” He has secured a position at Morgan Stanley, where he will be working in investment management. One tool he believes he will carry with him stems from his time in rowing, and his time as a student during the pandemic.

“Rowing has taught me to be open, and with Covid, I’ve been trying to live in the moment. I know I’m going to look back with fond memories of the training and experience we went through as a team. Going through this has taught me that everything we do, everything we go through, we need to sit down and take it in fully and joyfully. I’m excited as can be right now.” 

Lessons to Remember

When Coach Bohrer talks about this year, and his 28 rowers and six coxswains, he does so with pride for all they’ve accomplished and learned–about themselves and life.

“This has shaped the guys,” he said. “They learned to embrace what they can do. And once they embraced it, and see the result, it’s empowering.

“What I told the seniors was: Last year, your season got canceled, and this year it looks like we’re going to have some races, but it’s not going to be the same championship.

“Your legacy is going to be how you held the team together, that shared experience of being able to train together without knowing if you’re going to be able to compete. That joy of training and pushing each other is going to be something we will always remember.

“For all of us–everybody–this has been about finding passions again, whether it’s gardening, working on the house, spending more time with a spouse. Covid stinks, but in many ways it’s taught us about ourselves, and it’s no different on a team.”

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