by Tom Utescher
For Chestnut Hill native and rising La Salle High School senior Tommy Walker, the 2013 scholastic crew season was just the start of a very busy year of rowing.
Early in the spring, he attended one of many regional camps where U.S. Rowing coaches identify promising young athletes, and he was chosen to attend the National Junior High Performance Camp in Pittsburgh beginning in mid-June. There, various teams were selected to represent the United States in international juniors events both here and in Europe, and on July 9 Walker was one of 13 sweep rowers and scullers who traveled to Oklahoma City for the 2012 CanAmMex Games Regatta.
As the name implies, the event is a three-way competition between rowers in the national developmental programs of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. While there, Walker performed in two races in an eight-oared shell and one contest in a coxed four, winning all three with his U.S. teammates.
The whole experience has been an eye-opener for the 6’7”, 185 lb. Walker, starting with the camp in Pittsburgh.
“You have all the best coaches in the country coming out to help and support U.S. Rowing,” he related, “and you’re surrounded by the best rowers. Also, it’s very different living at the camp for a month and concentrating on nothing but rowing. It’s a special environment and it has a very different feel than regular school competition.”
There were, at least, some familiar faces at the elite gathering. Among the group were fellow La Salle rowers Andrew Barnish and Andrew Schutta, along with a third rising junior Walker knew, Steph Eble of Mount St. Joseph Academy. Schutta and Eble would make the trip to Oklahoma with Walker, while Barnish was selected to compete for the U.S. at the 2013 Junior World Championships, which will be held next month in Lithuania.
While Oklahoma City has not traditionally been known as a water sports mecca, the area has invested millions of dollars to reengineer and revitalize the portion of the North Canadian River that flows through the capital city. Locks, dams, and eventually a state-of-the art boathouse were built. This stretch of the waterway was renamed the Oklahoma River, and it now boasts an Olympic training facility that accommodates canoeists and kayakers as well as rowers.
On their first evening in the Sooner State, Walker and his mates in the U.S. eight faced the other two national crews in an informal 500-meter sprint. The Americans won this tune-up race in one minute, 21.69 seconds, followed by the Mexicans (1:23.70) and the Canadians (1:25.04). All of the subsequent racing was done on a 2000-meter course, which is the international standard.
Walker was assigned to the four-with-coxswain for Friday, July 12, and here the finishing order was the same: USA (6:55.25), Mexico (6:58.83), Canada (7:01.46). When the eights raced the following day, the pattern held, with the USA first in 6:15.12, Mexico second in 6:17.79, and Canada third in 6:26.79. In the overall point tally for the CanAmMex, Mexico came out on top thanks to its prowess in the smaller boats, especially the sculls.
Walker’s success over the summer won’t come as a shock to those who know his family background; there are definitely some rowing strands woven into his DNA.
His mother and older sister Emily were members of the crew at Mount St. Joseph Academy. Emily, in fact, was in the first Mount varsity eight to win a gold medal at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, and she continued her crew career at Harvard. Tommy’s older brother, Ted, was a successful member of the crew at La Salle High before he decided to focus on swimming at Penn State.
“My parents have always been very supportive, and my siblings had a huge influence on me,” Tommy related. “They both had a lot of inborn talent and then they each worked very hard to get the most out of that natural ability. They’re great role models and I’ve always looked up to both of them.”
Like his brother, Tommy swam for the highly regarded aquatic team at La Salle, but after his sophomore year he decided to go all-in with rowing.
“I was pretty good at swimming, and our team was great, but I just fell in love with crew, the whole atmosphere and environment,” he explained. “Also if you’re serious about competing at a high level in college, then rowing is going to be a year-round thing for you.”
Walker, whose academic interests runs towards math and science, is just starting the process of selecting a college, but he’s already sure that rowing will figure into his future plans.
“Right now, I’m just looking forward to a little time off, because I pretty much went right from the school season into the U.S. camp,” he pointed out. “There’s a little break right now, but it won’t be long before fall crew starts up back at La Salle.”