It all started with a promise.
As sophomores, Phil Simons and Elliot Shain were a part of the North Carolina men’s rowing team that finished fifth in the men's collegiate fours at the 51st Head of the Charles in Boston.
The event consists of club rowing teams from around the country, as well as some varsity programs such as Marist, Middlebury and Bowdoin College. Forty-one teams competed in this year's time trial event. The top 20 teams from the previous year start in the position based on last year’s finish, and the other spots are selected through a lottery system.
After finishing fifth in 2015, Simons felt like his team was talented but just a little too young. Last year, with Shain studying abroad, the Simons-led squad finished seventh. After the race, however, Simons sent a prophetic text to his friend.
“I sent him a text saying it doesn’t matter,” Simons recalled. “We will win this race senior year.”
He was right.
North Carolina started in the fifth position this year because the two teams that finished ahead of them didn't compete this year. And — thanks to a determined team led by Simons and Shain — UNC finished first in the five-kilometer event on Oct. 22. It was head coach Micah Boyd’s best finish at the regatta.
“When you get a medal in an event, it’s pretty important, but when you win it has much more importance and bigger feel out of it,” he said. “For me and for the guys, I felt like they were really thrilled. I was very pleased.”
It was an impressive finish for a North Carolina squad that has only been racing together as a unit for a few weeks. Senior coxswain Alyssa Sutton navigated her team through the tough, windy course in front of 4,000 spectators. Shain, Simons and seniors Chase Fenske and Jonathon Sewell worked well together to ensure the fastest time in the event of 16:04.425.
“I was definitely nervous because it’s been an overwhelming experience,” Sutton admitted. “So many spectators. Lots of boats on the water. It’s a tricky race for a coxswain too because I’m the one steering. There’s quite a few turns and like seven bridges. You have to watch out for other boats while going through the bridges and preparing your turns so you do not run into anything.”
Sutton did her job admirably, and her work, along with her teammates’, broke the course record for fastest time. For Sutton, it was validation that all the hard work put in was worth it.
“It was pretty amazing,” Sutton said. “Especially when I got off the water someone said we broke the course record. I couldn’t stop smiling for the next hour. It was just great being able to experience that with my teammates too. I’ve woken up at 5:30 every day for the past three years. I think it gives us good motivation going forward to being able to experience that again.”
This is the biggest regatta for the team in the fall. Now, these Tar Heels are focused on competitions in the spring. Boyd has his sights high on medaling in the American Collegiate Rowing Association club championship and the Dad Vail, another regatta featuring varsity programs, in the spring.
One important fact to note is that North Carolina has a varsity women’s rowing program, but the men’s program is a club sport, with the only female members being coxswains. Simons said that fundamentally, though, that doesn’t change a thing.
“I truly believe there is no greater team sport than rowing,” Simons said. “If anyone in that boat had not pulled as hard as they pulled, we would not have accomplished that. There is no single individual that accomplished anything this weekend. It really was the boat. It was a team win. Not even just these five guys, but it’s the whole crew and everyone that has come before us.”
To North Carolina, the hard-fought win should serve as a lesson that hard work pays off — as well as a reminder of what may come in the spring when that 5:30 a.m. alarm clock rings.
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