Many Ithacans have driven along the Cayuga Inlet at 6 a.m. on a frosty morning, looked at the pretty snow falling, marveled at the beauty of the ice framing the water, and asked this question: “Who are those people in the rowing shells, and why are they out there before the sun rises in sub-freezing weather?”
The answer to that question came into focus on Lake Natoma in California last week, when the Cornell men’s lightweight crew team hoisted the national championship trophy at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship. The win capped off yet another undefeated campaign (the lightweights’ fourth in the last five seasons) and two of the rowers, Sorin Koszyk and Ithaca native Henry Ellis, repeated as national champs after a very disappointing 2018 season.
Assistant Coach Bill Brumsted was one of those rowers laboring along the Cayuga Inlet as a youngster, as he joined the Cascadilla Boat Club as a 14 year-old Ithaca High student, graduating in 2007. He went on to row as a lightweight at Cornell (class of 2011), and by the next year, he had moved into a volunteer coaching position. Like many good Ivy League graduates, he gave the 9 to 5 thing a shot, working as a policy analyst for a think tank in Washington, D.C., but after a year, he came back to Ithaca to take a part-time job at his family’s business, Ithaca Foreign Auto, and reconnect with the Cornell rowing program. In 2014, he was hired as a full-time assistant coach, and he now handles many of the recruiting tasks to keep the elite talent flowing in.
I asked Bill about recruiting, and he said, “It’s a numbers game. When I travel, I look at the elite rowing clubs in the major metropolitan areas, and I reach out to the same rowers as most of the other programs. I start out with 200-300 rowers on my list, that group gets whittled down to around 50, and from that list, we invite about 25 prospects to campus.”
Given it is such a numbers game, and that Brumsted searches far and wide for that rare athlete that can row at an elite level while maintaining the necessary weight to row lightweight while maintaining an Ivy League academic workload, it was a very rewarding experience to see two fellow Cascadilla Boat Club alums in California. The aforementioned Henry Ellis graduated from Ithaca High in 2015, as did Rori Henderson, who was the coxswain in the lightweight four boat, which won the bronze medal. In the words of Barb Bassette, Rori’s mom, “I know that Henry has always been a dedicated, focused and intense rower, and Rori had to work so hard to work herself into a boat, and it was great to see both of them on the podium.”
Rori was the only female in the boat (as was Molly Rochford in the gold medal-winning lightweight eights), and in her mother’s words, “Rori joined the CBC in her freshman year at Ithaca High. She was sitting at the lunch table, and a friend said, ‘We need coxswains.’” Barb added, “You know, you see a lot of the hockey players, soccer stars and some athletes in other sports, and it’s obvious they started when they were four years old. It’s great that in rowing, you can get a later start and still succeed.”
While the coxswains do not need to maintain the same level of fitness as do the rowers, their role is vital to the collective success. Bassette (who, along with her husband and Rori’s dad, Chuck, made the trip to Cali) offered, “Whether there are nine in the boat, or five, they need to row as one. Every rower has to contribute.” (For those unfamiliar with rowing, the coxswain sits in the stern of the boat, facing the rowers, and makes sure the rowers are in sync and that the boat follows a straight line.) I asked Henry Ellis how much difference the right coxswain can make, and he said, “A good coxswain, like Rori, is the real leader. As rowers, we can’t see one another, or communicate, yet we have to be a cohesive unit. The coxswain is the glue that holds it together.”
I asked Henry to share his feelings of redemption, and he offered, “Last year was a huge disappointment, and it feels great to go undefeated this year and win the IRA.” Despite growing up in Ithaca and rowing for the CBC, Henry considered rowing at Princeton and Dartmouth, but “loved Cornell’s beautiful team culture.” He plans to become a financial advisor in New York City, and when asked if he will find a way to stoke his competitive fires, he said, “I tend to go a little bit crazy, and while I’ll probably run a bit, it will definitely be a step back from what I have been doing.”
(In addition to Ellis, Koszyk, and Rochford, the national champs are Nick Anderson, Eric Lee, David Tigerman, Cameron Bertossa, Andrew Hickey and Evan Krum.)