In late May, the women’s rowing team of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, found itself, figuratively speaking, up a creek without a paddle. In reality, the women were without a boat, but not without the selflessness and class of their fellow rowers.
Traveling to the NCAA Rowing Championships in Sacramento, Calif., Bates’ boats were damaged when the truck transporting them hit a light pole. The boats cost $35,000 each and take months to manufacture, so coach Peter Steenstra decided to try to borrow boats from another team. After finishing as runner-up for five straight years, his team “would have raced an eight-person whale boat if that’s all that was available,” he said.
The first to step up who could get a boat to Sacramento was coach Vaclav Kacir of Loyola Marymount. His team had not qualified for nationals, so Kacir’s assistant coaches transported one of LMU’s eight-person boats to the University of Southern California, which had qualified for nationals, and put the boat on its trailer.
After arriving in Sacramento, Steenstra ran into coach Kevin Sauer of the University of Virginia. The two struck up a conversation in which Steenstra told Sauer his dilemma.
“I said, ‘You’re in luck,’” Sauer said. “‘See that boat over there? Since we’re not going to use it, it’s yours.’” Virginia had competed earlier in the year in Seattle and had kept spare boats on the West Coast.
Sauer had been waiting for that moment for more than a quarter-century. As a young coach at Purdue, a truck transporting team boats to an event in Georgia broke down. By the time the team arrived, five schools had offered boats.
“Paying it forward is a big deal,” said Sauer, in his 39th year as a rowing coach “I want to beat you with everything I got, but not if you have one arm tied behind your back. We compete like banshees, but off the water it’s really a collegial atmosphere.”
Because Virginia competes in Division I and Bates in Division III, the teams became more than collegial. Each rooted for the other, and each shared in the other’s triumphs. Bates finished first in the Loyola Marymount boat in one event, second in Virginia’s in another. The combined score gave them the Division III team title, the first in any sport for Bates. Virginia finished first in the four-person grand final and fifth overall in Division I.
“It was pretty cool to see the girls cheering for each other,” Sauer said.
The generosity of Loyola Marymount and Virginia went unmentioned at the event, and Steenstra has quietly thanked Kacir and Sauer. Tonight, Kacir and Steenstra will meet face-to-face for the first time.
“It’ll be great to see them both and give them a proper and public thank you,” Steenstra said. And let the sport and its good sports take a bow, so to speak. “Rowing doesn’t get a whole lot of press, and people do this all the time,” Sauer said. “I’m proud to let people know about it.”