In The Beginning

(Written in 1985 by co-founder Ralph Kopperman)

In my last year at Columbia 1961 1962 I joined crew. I wasn’t very good; I only made the third boat, and we lost more races than we won. But you don’t need to be good to get a lot out of crew, During that year, I lost 40 pounds and had muscles for the first time in my life. When I moved on to graduate school, I couldn’t give up rowing, so I paddled around out of the MIT boathouse, and the next year some guys I met down there and I formed the MIT Grads. After two more seasons of mostly losing, I concentrated on schoolwork enough to get my degree. Right after that I came to URI to join the Math Department in the fall of 1965. My first discovery when I came was that there was no crew. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing to do but set one up.

Registration then (and now, for all I know), was a mass torture session down at the gym. Faculty members sat at tables with course cards, which they handed out to students to register them for courses. I drew registration duty and for once turned this machine of pain to a good use. I made a six inch rowing trophy that I had won, stand sentry at the Math desk, watching a crew sign up sheet. It wasn’t long before the bait was taken. Bill Sonzogni, scion of a Philadelphia rowing family, did a double take in front of the little oarsman. Bill had brought a double up to URI the previous year, and practiced with another student. We brought each other up to date quickly, and agreed to meet after registration to make further plans. With his help, and that of others, the sign up sheet quickly filled, and a couple of days later we held a meeting of crew hopefuls and showed an inspirational rowing film. Between 70 and 100 came to that first meeting.

We were given a couple of old shells. I must admit that I’m not quite sure where they came from, but our biggest help during those early days came from Brown. Their coach, Vic Michalson, had developed a powerhouse crew with the smallest student body and one of the smallest budgets in the Ivy League (the Ivies don’t do much in the sports arena to turn out professionals, but in rowing, they’re the strongest). Only Harvard among all collegiate crews was consistently stronger than Brown in those days. Vic’s love of rowing and identification with a young, struggling program led him to help as much as he could.

Bill Sonzogni’s rowing club in Philadelphia also helped a great deal, but were farther from us. Our first home was at the remains of a yacht boathouse south of Wakefield. The boathouse was open on one side, and its docks were high above the water with pilings still higher, to tie on yachts. We had to walk the boats in and out of the water for our workouts there. The body of water on which we rowed is called Point Judith Pond on maps, but its local name, “Salt Pond”, better described our experience on it. Despite its saltiness, it froze, we froze, and tempers froze to brittle. The less committed (and more intelligent?) quickly dropped out, and by the end of fall workouts we were down to about two dozen.

Something had to be done, and over the winter, we got permission from the Boy Scouts to put a boathouse on their land near a dock at the south end of Worden Pond. Bill and I looked at some buildings that people were getting rid of I particularly remember walking through a chicken house that a farmer wanted taken from his land, it was gamy, but it took Bill a couple of minutes to talk me out of it. We finally got a building which was too short for eights, but otherwise okay (we were desperate). We moved it to the land, cut it in two, and separated the pieces enough to fit in the shells. During the spring we built a new middle for it using wood donated (I think by the Wakefield Branch Company Piet Langendoen, who worked for the Biology Department, arranged the donation). Worden Pond is shaped like a triangle, and the water was always rough on the side the wind was blowing at that day, but we could always get to water smooth enough to learn on.

In retrospect, my own strengths and weaknesses had a great deal to do with the existence and eventual shape of URI Crew. My main strength was that when I saw something that needed doing, I went ahead and did it: despite ample evidence I always believed I could do anything. I was also good at maintaining spirit through thin and thinner. I had more trouble turning thin into thick, or bad rowing into good rowing.

Thank goodness for the great help I had. There was sensible experienced oarsmen like Bill and Glen Prezkop; dedicated, inexperienced oarsmen, who were thinking carefully about what crew needed and how to get it, like Sam Kinder, Pete Stockman, Mike Specht, Herb Gumpright, Pete Palagi, Russ Dion, Dick Brooks, Bruce Silverman and many others. Their suggestions helped supplement my thoughts which then, as now, were scattered, and their ability with a hammer often mattered more than that with an oar. An important man early on was Al Divoll, whose skill with an oar was adequate, but whose skill and position with the student government got us some money which we needed for our early operations.

That spring we had our first races. The very first was against Drexel. It was rumored that their athletic director, John Semanik, liked to race teams that they could beat. Whether or not that was true, the great spirit and dedication of those who pioneered URI Crew wasn’t a match for the advantage in experience held over us by Drexel. We didn’t row very well, and we lost. But what was remarkable was not that we, rowed poorly, but that we rowed at all. And that twenty years later, URI Crew still rows and well!

Since Ralph Kopperman’s involvement in the genesis of URI Crew, the program has seen a great deal of change. In the more than 40 years since it’s inception, it has spawned countless athletes that have gone on to dominate their field. URI Crew split in the mid- 90’s when the Women were elevated to Varsity status, and like the Men, became regional forces making regular high finishes at A-10s, ECACs, and IRAs. Many of our athletes have continued rowing after URI and gone on to great success in national and international competition, including several Olympic medalists. Still others choose the professional arena; many of URI Crew’s alumni have gone on to be successful industry leaders in Engineering, Computers, Politics, and Business just to name a few….but none forget the time they spent with URI Crew

Surviving 2 boathouse fires, a series of dizzying highs and dark lows, and all manner in between; URI Crew has asserted it self as steadfast in New England racing; regularly contending at the New England Championships, ECAC Invitaional, and occasionally the Dad Vail and IRA regattas. A new pinnacle, perhaps, was reached during the 2003-2004 racing season which witnessed a new manifestation of URI Men’s Crew. The freshman who had joined 4 years before formed an uncanny bond only rowers could understand; and, under the guidance of then Head Coach Rick Gherst, the group would go on to set a new standard of excellence in the URI Men’s Crew tradition. That group, that joined up as freshmen without any prior experience, not having any clue what they were getting themselves into, would affirm as fact and not fiction, what scores of athletes had been chasing (and in many instances found) the previous 40 years.

A New Standard

(Written in 2006 by Rob Delack ’04)

I began rowing in the second semester of my freshman year, in the winter of 2001. I had been encouraged to join by other rowers for most of the first semester, but I had been convincing myself that I didn’t want to wake up that early, didn’t want that big of a commitment on top of schoolwork, etc. A miserable couple of months of winter training didn’t help much to change my mind. However, in March the team traveled to Cocoa Beach Florida for spring training. The first time I stepped into a boat with such a great group of guys I knew that I had made the right choice.

By the time the end of our freshman year came, a team that had started out with more than 60 people had been whittled down to roughly 18. At the Dad Vail regatta, we finally were able to gauge our speed against other teams on a national level. We realized that although not very graceful we had more power than most of the freshman teams in that race. We finished fourth in that race, but we knew the way that we had raced that day was just a taste of things to come.

The next two years filled with a number of important experiences, including big disappointments and great achievements. Each year we slowly moved up the rankings, making it into the ECAC petite finals in 2002, then to the ECAC Grand Finals in 2003. Needless to say that coming into our Senior year we had great expectations for ourselves. From the first day of practice in September, we had one goal in mind: To win ECACs and as our head coach would eventually tell us, to go to the Royal Henley Regatta. We would not have even thought that going to such an elite Regatta was a possibility when we starting rowing 4 years ago, but now it didn’t seem so unbelievable to be invited to such a race. From early on in the season, things were right on track, first finishing 8th in the Head of the Charles in the Collegiate Open Men, then 9th at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta against some of the best teams in the country.

Once the fall season had wrapped up we began our land training back at the boathouse. You could feel the special importance that everyone was putting on their training, realizing that every rep, every second was counted if we were going to fulfill our potential in the spring. We came into spring training fitter and stronger than we had ever been before. People were shattering their PR’s on the erg, itching to get back on the water and see what we were made of.

The spring proved to be (almost) everything that we had hoped. We were not only winning all of our early spring races, but winning them by boat lengths. Things were looking very good for us coming into New England’s. We had a new boat built for speed and a ton of power to move it. Unfortunately, the conditions proved to be extremely unfavorable and although we were the top seeded team coming into the finals, we finished a disappointing third. We were not going to let this slow us down though, two weeks from that date was our fourth and last ECAC’s. We breezed through our first heat, easily qualifying for the semi-finals. The most unforgettable race I have ever had though was in the semi-finals. We were rowing out to the starting line, and I had the biggest knot in my stomach that I had ever felt. Sitting at the starting line, the boats we were up against were no joke; we had to put it all on the line to make it into the finals. 3..2..1..Go! We take off the start at a 47! I am pulling so hard I feel like my arms are going to break off. With the help of Brian, the coxswain, we get into a rhythm, still in the lead pack, going stroke for stroke with the best club teams on the east coast. Somewhere around 1000 meters it suddenly feels like we are barely even rowing at all. We had attained that moment of pure rowing that every rower searches for from their first stroke. We began to inch forward of all the other boats, effortlessly, smoothly. 6:13…The fastest time in the field by more than one second going into the Finals. We were setting ourselves up to have the best finish in the history of URI. We get to the starting line and everything is perfect. We have the middle lane and the best time coming into the race. We put it all on the line start to finish, it was one of our fastest races ever, and we rowed our way to a third place metal and had proven ourselves to be the fastest team in the northeast.

There was no time to rest on our laurels as we still had to race at IRA’s and Henley. We continued to practice and train, using the boathouse as a makeshift dormitory for those who lived out of state. IRA’s did not go as planned, as we finished outside of the Grand and Petite finals, but our true focus was on July and the hot and humid weather at Henley.

We hopped on a plane in early July not really knowing what to expect, but anxious to experience it all. The race in itself is very surreal; rowers from all over the world race each other in a one-on-one format on a narrow race course bordered on either side by linked pieces of wood. This race is a true test of strength and endurance as the weather is usually poor and the current is always against you. Not to mention, the race-course is 6930 feet long, which translates to roughly 1.5 miles, so it is a good bit longer than a 2000m race. In our first race we drew Exeter University, and although it was quite sloppy, we managed to beat them by over two boat lengths, giving us the confidence that we could truly compete on an international level. Unfortunately for us, we drew Harvard in the second round of rowing, so we knew that we would need to have the best race of our lives to be able to beat them. Most of these kids have been rowing since they were old enough to hold an oar, and only one person on our team had rowed before high school. We put in a valiant effort, but were unable to best them, losing by about one boat length in one of the hardest fought races in our rowing career.

I realized after we heard the horn blow at the end of our race to signify that this would be the last time that I would ever row again in college, which is quite saddening. However, I came to realize that rowing has been the single best experience of my life and the lessons I learned and the people I met had a hugely positive impact on my life and continue to until this day.