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  • Writer's pictureAllan Shedlin

The Secret to Beating Lane 6

Updated: 10 hours ago

By Scott Beller

Daddying Editor and D3F Director of Communications

The Island on the Schuylkill.

If you have ever rowed or watched boats row on the Schuylkill River, you know about The Island. Lane 6, which meets and hugs The Island about two-thirds of the way through the course, is where championship dreams go to die.


Winning a heat from Lane 6 is more than a pipedream. You can only hope to survive. To not finish last in your heat. Boat after boat tried and failed all last weekend during the semifinals and finals of the world's largest high-school rowing event, the 97th annual Stotesbury Regatta in Philadelphia.

This sport is insane. It is beautiful, amazingly simple, and complicated all at the same time. And, to student athletes willing to sacrifice so much of their time and sleep and so many other activities and vacations a teenager would rather enjoy instead of pulling an erg chain for hours on end and an oar in the rainy darkness of 5am, it is a wickedly satisfying lifestyle. One they pursue relentlessly to have just a few precious minutes each spring weekend on the water with their boatmates pulling a 38 for 1500m to victory. Love and respect.

On the day of finals, in a light but steady rain, boats finishing in Lane 6 averaged about 8 seconds behind 5th place. Multiple boat-lengths. Many were still in the hunt midway through their races. But by the time they'd slogged past The Island, dragged by its shoreline and with no assist from the current in its shallow water, rowers were visibly spent. Almost nothing left in them to fuel their kick.


Making it to finals was an achievement in itself, but small consolation for crews who'd fought hard to get within reach of the podium against some of the country's best private and public school programs. To hear your draw would be Lane 6 in the final race after finishing in the required top-2 of your semifinal heat was a gut punch. Brooding over that wretched prospect all night for a race scheduled the next afternoon can torture a rower and crew's psyche.


This is the situation my daughter's Freshman 8 boat faced this past Saturday at Stotes. After gutting out a 2nd place finish from lane 2 in the last Friday-night semifinal against stiff competition, including perennial powerhouse schools Mount St. Joe's, Jackson-Reed, and Walt Whitman, Yorktown High School's mighty Freshman girls drew Lane 6 for the final. 


I watched my daughter's semifinal on my phone via livestream while standing in the corridor outside the 2nd Annual Daddying Film Forum, which was taking place just a mile from the River at the Parkway Central Free Library. As breakout discussion groups commenced inside our event celebrating the importance of involved dads, I urged my rower and her teammates on with increasing, echoing volume as they pulled their bow ball to the tip of the 3rd-place boat's stern and neared the finish. For a minute, it definitely got Loud in the Library (hat-tip to D3F 2024 Atticus Award winner Mr. Jeff)!


About 150 meters out, the feed froze, of course, only to resume after the race was complete and the announcers were giving a quick "What a finish for Yorktown..." before moving on to introduce the next semifinal already on the water. I was elated regardless. After months of 4am wake-up calls, sweat, torn callouses, and mental fortification, my kid and her teammates had attained their next lofty goal after taking the Virginia State Championship the week before: making it to finals at Stotes.


My nerves settled, I could turn my focus back to the event I'd been working with MY teammates to achieve for the past 10 months, with slightly less sweat and mental rigor.


I didn't yet know Lane 6 awaited. Because theirs was the last semifinal, the Freshman 8 would know almost immediately.


Quick reminder: YHS Girls Freshman 8 are Virginia State champs!

Their approach could have been, "Oh well, we made the finals. Sixth place isn't too bad." Not this boat. Not these girls. Instead, they made a plan to beat that f***ing island.


My daughter texted her mom and me Friday night: "We're going to sprint the last 500m."


Here's where I feel like more rowing context is needed. The following basic explainer is lifted from a Facebook post I wrote after my daughter's freshman boat won their state championship (and the biggest trophy ever) last week:


Have you ever ERGed? ERG is short for ergometer and the common term to refer to the stationary rower crew athletes use to train and simulate rowing without an actual boat. They row their ergs with the fan resistance set at about a 5 out of 10 to simulate the feel of pushing water with an oar blade. The erg keeps track of several units to measure the work performed during a rowing "piece." ...pace is identified in strokes per minute.


If you've ever erged as a non-crew athlete, you know what it's like to row 1500 meters as a warmup at, say, a 20 or 22 (strokes per minute - by the end, even though just warming up, you FEEL it), OR as part of a longer interval workout and you're sprinting at maybe a 32 after you've done your first 1500 warmup. At that rate for that same distance/time, you'll be sweating buckets. It's a great, all-body and cardio workout even if you're not on it for the amount of time a crew athlete spends there every day during winter training months and beyond...


This weekend, L and her teammates started their VA State Championship-winning heat (their 2nd race of the day) at somewhere around a 38 (according to her, who was sitting in the stroke seat eye-to-eye with the coxswain). Then with the race reaching the 1st 500m, adrenaline was kicking in and their coxswain noticed...they were humming at about a 42. So, TWICE the rate of your avg joe warmup...L gave her coxswain a look like "um, we can't keep this up for the rest of the race or we'll be dead by the time we need to kick." So the cox took them down a notch or two...to about a 38, which they basically held until the last 300m and their kick...so, maybe a 40. Before they'd even reached the midway point of the race, they'd overtaken the lead boat. And. Never. Looked. Back.


Next time you're on that erg, after you've done your 20 spm warm-up, hop back on after a 5 minute break and try another 1500m. This time at a 38 the entire piece...


My point is, what these kids do on and off the water, week in, week out, for like 10 months out of the year (incl non-school summer and fall rowing) is damn near superhuman. They work their asses off in order to compete in just 3 or 4 regattas during the HS season, if they're lucky and the weather cooperates (not to mention if they stay healthy). That's dedication. That's love of a challenge. That's dedication to your team, your coaches, yourself, the girls/boys in your boat.


This sport is insane. It is beautiful, amazingly simple, and complicated all at once. And, to student athletes willing to sacrifice so much of their time and sleep and so many other activities and vacations a teenager would rather enjoy instead of pulling an erg chain for hours on end and an oar in the rainy darkness of 5am, it is a wickedly satisfying lifestyle. One they pursue relentlessly to have just a few precious minutes each spring weekend on the water with their boatmates pulling a 38 for 1500m to victory. Love and respect.


Sprinting (or kicking) with 500m to go is a tall order for any boat, novice or varsity, on any course. Even without The Island might as well be a mountain in front of you. But these awesome athletes knew the only way to have a shot finishing out of last place was to hit that immovable object running. Fast.


Boy, did they ever.


The YHS Freshman 8 were behind as they closed on The Island, but not by much. The six competitors were fairly clustered, with the favored boat (in the ideal lane 3) ahead and everyone else still jockeying for 2nd and 3rd place. With 500 meters to go, just before The Island asserted its power-sucking, soul-crushing forces, Yorktown's cox gave the order. Her team responded.


Blades carving the rain-dappled Schuylkill at 40 strokes per minute, they launched themselves into The Island's shadow. From our sharp-angled view in the grandstand near the finish line, all boats seemed to tread water. Once the pack glided to the midway point of the 350-meter-long Island, positioning that was perfectly clear to the rowers became clearer to us. Unlike any other boat that weekend, our Freshman 8 had not lost ground on their nearest competitor in lane 5. They had overtaken them. Not only that, but they appeared to be within striking distance of the 3rd and 4th place boats.


This was crazy. The video at the bottom of this post will show you just how impossible it seemed for them to be in that position against that competition under those conditions coming away from The Island. Nobody, not even their parents, could have imagined how close the podium might be for the girls in this Lane 6 boat (this public school boat – gasp!). This Lane 6 boat full of heart, grit, and still missing their top rower.


They finished spectacularly and in 5th place.


On its face, finishing 5th in a six-boat race looks and feels like it should be a major let-down. Nothing could be further from reality. They finished 5th out of 35 boats to start the weekend. 5th among the top freshman crews on the East Coast and, really, the nation. 5th coming out of LANE SIX!


Let me try to further clarify with some data. As mentioned earlier, Lane 6 boats of all sizes (varsity men and women 1Vs and 2Vs, junior 8s, and freshman 8s, alike) were, on average, finishing about 8 seconds – again, multiple boat-lengths behind 5th place boats all weekend. Our kids erased that. Their finishing time in the final race of 5 mins 24.67 seconds was 3.73 seconds out of 4th place, 3.81 seconds out of 3rd place, and 4.11 seconds out of 2nd place.


Put them in any other lane or on any other river without the siren song of The Island menacing them that day, and maybe they achieve something like time travel. Maybe they make up 3.73 seconds or 3.81 seconds or even 4.11 seconds. Different river, different circumstances, different competition, but the YHS Girls Freshman 8's 5th-place time at Stotesbury of 5:24.67 was a full 5 seconds faster than their winning time in the VASRA Championship final (5:29.70).


An hour after the final, exhausted and disappointed, the YHS Freshman girls stand proud and focused on their next task at the SRAA National Championships Regatta this week on the Cooper River in Pennsauken, NJ, just 5 miles from the Stotesbury course. My daughter is the stone-faced warrior positioned immediately to the right of her coxswain above. Took some doing to finally coax a smile.


The YHS girls knew the challenge. They believed in themselves. They made a plan and executed it together. Post-race, they may have been upset by the superficial results, but neither they nor anyone else could deny the deeper meaning of what they'd accomplished. Now they know their true strength. They know what they're capable of under the worst conditions. They should be proud and confident. They're ready for nationals.


At this point you may be wondering what this heroic story has to do with the Daddying blog beyond its editor once again indulging and sharing a proud-dad moment with his readers. There's an inspiring lesson in what my daughter and her crewmates have done this season, and these past two weeks, in particular. Yeah, my kid continues to teach me stuff... as both her dad/parent and the director of communications for the Daddying Film Festival & Forum (D3F). And here it is, sappy as it may sound:


Forget about the lane you're in today. It will only distract you from your mission. Try not to predict tomorrow's results. Just trust your team, get after it as best you can, and know that hitting challenges head-on will prepare you for success.


When I was a first-time dad, like most dads, my Lane 6 was lack of sleep and hands-on knowledge. And like most dads, I have been able to prove myself capable (most of the time and through much trial and error to this day!) because I was dedicated to my purpose of loving unconditionally and raising tiny humans to be healthy, kind, open-minded, and productive adults. I also had the good fortune of being able to continue working from home, thanks to my equally-dedicated, supportive, and hard-working wife. She's blessed me with tremendous flexibility to become the dad I always wanted to be and to be here for both my daughters every step of the way.


It can be (and has often been) exhausting, but the daily benefits provided by the close connections I've forged with both my kids has always kept me afloat. Sixteen years later, the preliminary results of my wife's and my parenting efforts show great promise for our daughters' future. Whether we watch them row, perform Tae Kwon Do, or hang out for a laugh with their friends, their strength, caring, sense of humor and beauty, inside and out, are unmistakable. Being their parents is a gift.


Girls For A Change CEO Angela Patton introduces her Sundance award-winning film "Daughters" at the 2024 Daddying Film Forum

As for my experience with D3F, it was our third year for the virtual festival and just our second try at producing a live event. In 2022, we dove off a cliff into an ocean of 3000+ live and virtual film festivals worldwide not knowing if we could build our wings on the way down. Three years in, we're still the "Little Festival That Could," but we're improving, growing, and making crucial connections with local nonprofits, industry organizations, media, influencers, and filmmakers with each run. Did we knock it out of the park and sell out both Forum venues in Philly this year? No, but we had a better turnout than our first trial run last year and we made a real impact with those who joined us for some great Atticus Award-winning and finalist films and profound discussion about the importance and impact of fostering lifelong connections between fathers and their children.


We know our mission is universal and our preliminary results have only reinforced that notion. Filmmakers from 26 countries have participated since we began three years ago. This year, we had more than 500 virtual attendees from 19 countries join us during festival week. Involved dads matter, and D3F is providing filmmakers a worldwide platform to tell their stories.


We have every reason to believe the groundwork is in place for our successful return to Eventive's virtual platform and the City of Brotherly (and Fatherly) Love in 2025. We can be proud and optimistic for next year's events. So, stay tuned, keep tearing it up in Lane 6 or wherever else you may find yourself paddling, and Daddy on!



I've never cheered so hard for or been so proud of a hard-fought 5th-place finish. It was...superhuman.



 

Scott Beller is the proud, imperfect crew dad of two mighty girl rowers (both competing in this week's national championships in New Jersey - let's go, Yorktown!), imperfect husband of a rock-star mom/regatta chaperone, truth teller, former soccer coach, part-time driving instructor, photobomber, purveyor of banned books, Editor of the Daddying blog, and Director of Communications for DCG and D3F. Oh, and resume padder. He's a seasoned writer and PR agency veteran with more than 30 years of experience helping organizations of all sizes reach audiences and tell their stories. Prior to launching his own creative communications consultancy in 2003, he led PR teams with some of the world’s most respected agencies, including Fleishman-Hillard and The Weber Group. As a consultant, he’s helped launch two other parenting advocacy nonprofits with DCG founder Allan Shedlin. His first book, Beggars or Angels, was a ghostwritten memoir for the nonprofit Devotion to Children's founder Rosemary Tran Lauer. He was formerly known as "Imperfect Dad" and Head Writer for the Raising Nerd blog, which supported parents in inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and creative problem solvers. He earned his BA in Communications from VA Tech.

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