May 25, 2012
ANNAPOLIS, Md. -
It's been four years, but Chris Gear remembers it like it was yesterday.
"Our first race as freshmen was on a Thursday morning against Holy Cross," said Gear. "Holy Cross wasn't able to race on Good Friday, so we raced on Thursday before class. I just remember having to go right to a physics lab as soon as we were done. We ended up winning by a pretty good margin, so it was a good time.
"It's cool to see how far we've come since then."
Gear and fellow seniors Kyle Browne, Matt Fluhr and Will Race have rowed together in the same boat since that first race in the spring of 2009. As plebes, they were a part of the first freshman boat. The next year, the four made the jump to the first varsity crew, which is where they have been since and where they will be when they compete together for the last time at the IRA National Championships next week.
After dozens of races, thousands of miles on the water and countless hours of practice, the four have forged a friendship as strong as any.
"If I had to choose three other people to go and do anything with, they would be the ones picked first," said Fluhr, the team captain.
The benefits of the bond forged by the four rowers provide one of those immeasurable assets that can go unnoticed in sports. However, it's that oft-overlooked advantage that proves to be the key ingredient in championship teams.
"It has been great - we know each other so well," said Race. "We know what each guy is thinking, we know how to push each other's buttons. It's probably the closest bond with friends that I've ever had."
Despite the year-ending IRA regatta approaching and the ensuing conclusion of their collegiate rowing careers, it's still business as usual for the team.
"It hasn't hit me yet that we're coming up on our final race, because right now it still feels like we're in the grove of practicing every day," said Fluhr.
Will, does it seem like your last regatta is just around the corner?
"No," said Race with a laugh. "Everyday we've been coming to work as usual. Everybody is pretty relaxed and ready to go make a statement next weekend. It might hit me when I'm done that I can't row for Navy anymore."
While it will eventually become reality that their collegiate rowing careers will come to a close, right now the four - and the rest of the Navy heavyweight rowers - are focused solely on the IRA National Championships. The event begins May 31, with the finals scheduled for June 2.
The varsity crew is 13-4 this season and the Mids' fifth-place performance at the Eastern Sprints was just the latest example of the team's success this season. While the varsity crew started the season by raising a few eyebrows at the prestigious San Diego Crew Classic, the foundation for this season's run was laid much earlier.
"It all started at the end of last year," said Race. "We came off of a good finish at the IRA and the four of us really kind of talked and said `next year is our year.' Everybody spent a lot of time training over the summer and we came back in August and hit the ground running. We did some good things during the fall and then came into winter training and focused on the IRA National Championship. The whole team bought into it."
The Mids put together a strong fall that included a third-place showing at the Princeton Chase. From there, the team turned its focus to the grueling offseason program in preparation for the spring season.
"I think we've rowed around 2,600 miles this year," said Browne.
When the time came for the San Diego Crew Classic on March 31, the Mids were more than prepared and it showed. After taking second in its heat race, the varsity placed third in the grand final, behind only Harvard and Cal.
"Being able to test our speed with some of the best crews was a lot of fun and we proved to ourselves we could do it," said Gear.
Fluhr agreed: "We came away from there thinking, `Okay, we're in this league'."
Navy followed its performance at the San Diego Crew Classic by winning the George Washington Invitational for the second consecutive season. As a team, Navy crews went a combined 11-0 at the event.
The following week, the varsity boat reclaimed the Goes Trophy by defeating both Cornell and Syracuse, and after its opening weekend, the crew suffered just one defeat entering the Eastern Sprints. The first varsity's fifth-place finish was its best at the Eastern Sprints since taking third in 2004, while as a team, Navy also placed fifth, which was the program's best since 1994.
Though several factors have gone into making the Mids successful this season, they may be able to point to the San Diego Crew Classic the as one event that especially helped propel them further.
"It definitely gave us confidence going forward," said Gear. "No matter how much experience you have in a boat, you still have some nerves in that first spring race. To know that we put together a couple really strong races was definitely a confidence builder."
Now, this group of seniors has just one race to go. A race they've trained for since freshmen and one last opportunity to compete for college rowing's coveted title.
"We're really excited to get into the IRA regatta because we've put in a lot of work," said Browne. "As seniors, we've put in four years of hard work. Every year you work hard for the Eastern Sprints and IRA National Championships, but especially as seniors."
While the IRA regatta might be the final time Browne (Marine Corps), Fluhr (Navy Surface Warfare), Gear (Navy Surface Warfare, nuclear) and Race (Navy SEALs) compete together, it will be just another step in a lifelong friendship forged on the water four years ago.
"It's surprising how fast the four years have gone by," said Gear. "It's exciting to know that we have helped bring the program up a little bit and we're racing at a higher level now.
"It's going to be weird not practicing with them every day, but I'm sure we will stay in touch."