by Tom Utescher
For most high school rowers, the season ended near the end of May or, at the latest, in early June at the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships. For James Wright, a rising senior at Germantown Friends School, the crew campaign continued right through into August.
After competing at the Youth Nationals in Florida Wright travelled to California, where he would take part in the trials that would determine the makeup of the U.S. team that would race at the 2017 World Rowing Junior Championships in Trakai, Lithuania on August 2-6. He had raced on his own in a “single” throughout the scholastic season, but at the national selection camp he was picked to join three other elite scullers and represent the U.S. in a four-man quad.
“It was fun and it was a pleasure to be able to row with the top guys,”
Wright remarked. “In the single, it does get pretty lonely, especially in training and in races, so it was nice to be able to have the different type of energy in a bigger boat like a quad.”
One of 18 entries in the quad category at Junior Worlds, Wright’s boat would finish its run by winning the “B” final (one of three six-boat finals designated A, B and C), thus placing seventh overall.
He felt his boat could have done even better, if not for some unusual developments at the event.
“A lot of the U.S. rowers, myself included, got pretty sick over there,” he related. “Our team doctor thought it was possibly food poisoning from the food we had in our hotel. That definitely compromised our racing. If not for that, we felt we had the speed to have been in the A final, but we just decided to make the best of the situation and win the B.”
In the spring, Wright had dominated in the varsity single during the Manny Flick crew races that are the equivalent to the “regular season” in other sports. He then won the gold medal at the Philadelphia City Championships and at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America (SRAA) Regatta. In between, he claimed the bronze medal at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta.
At Youth Nationals, which includes not only athletes from high school teams but also rowers from club organizations, Wright placed fifth.
He would encounter some rivals from those events later on, but this time they were his teammates on the U.S. squad for Junior Worlds. In his quad was Emory Sammons from upstate New York, whom Wright had beaten by a fraction of a second in the SRAA final. The Floridian who had won the Stotesbury gold medal in a single, Clark Dean, would also become the gold medalist in his U.S. single in Trakai.
Like many rowers, Wright had little exposure to the sport before he reached high school age. He went out for crew as a ninth-grader, curious about a GFS program that appeared to be flourishing under the leadership of Aaron Preetam, the Tigers’ coach and also a member of the faculty at the school.
“The team was really new, so it was an exciting opportunity,” he explained. “Aaron knew that I was an athlete and I was tall [he currently stands 6’5”), so I had some potential as a rower.
“I was always pretty big into soccer,” he continued, “and I played for GFS into my sophomore year, when I fractured my hip. That’s when I kind of got the message that I should start transitioning full-time to crew.”
He’d rowed in a double with a classmate during his freshman season, and the next year he raced in a very successful double along with Andrea Berghella, who was then a GFS senior and who now is a member of the crew at Brown University. Wright occasionally rowed in a quad, mostly during practices just to fill in for an absent teammate.
“I like that rowing is a racing sport,” he noted. “There are definitive wins and losses, and you can also measure your improvement through the times. For me that makes it easy to get motivated.”
In the classroom, Wright has always been drawn to the study of mathematics and science, and he finds the physics of rowing interesting. He’s going to look into the field of engineering in college, and also plans to row at the next level.
He had little time for college visiting this summer, though. His performance during the spring season got him noticed by the junior national team coaches, and he was invited to the selection camp where the crews for Junior Worlds would be chosen.
He related, “I pretty much went from Youth Nationals in Florida right out to the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California. There were about 10 scullers competing for spots in the quad, and I was selected out of that group in camp. There were several rounds of cuts, and after the boats were named about halfway through the camp, we trained together the rest of the time.”
The American athletes flew out for Lithuania on July 26. They wouldn’t have a great deal of time for sightseeing, except for during the regular 40-minute trip from their hotel to the race course. The course, however, was intriguing in itself.
“It was a lake with a series of islands on it, and on one of them there was a medieval castle pretty close to the course,” Wright recounted.
The quads entered from 18 nations began the competition in three six-boat heats. The first and second-place crews would move directly into the semifinal round, while the rest would have a chance to earn a semifinal spot by engaging in two “repechage” races. Many of the crews from the other countries had been training as a unit longer than the U.S. athletes.
With a fourth-place outcome in their initial heat, the Americans fed into the “reps”. Coming in third in their race there, they advanced into the semifinals, where top three boats in each of the two races would move into the A final, while the others would race in the B final.
The U.S. finished sixth in its semifinal contest, although the crew’s time was faster than that of three boats in the other section. Wright and his mates finished up by winning the B final by nearly two-and-a-half seconds over the Czech Republic. In the A final the fastest boat from the opening heats, Switzerland, captured the gold medal over Great Britain and Italy.
Wright and his teammates got back to the U.S. on August 7; before long he would be starting his senior year at GFS. For the fall crew season, he’ll probably be back in a single, although it’s possible that another rower may emerge in the Tigers’ program that would be a good match for him in a double.
“I’m excited to see who turns out for the fall season, and then in the spring,” he said. It’s great to see how many people at our school are taking an interest in crew, and that a number of them are really taking a serious interest. I think our team’s only going to get stronger in that regard.”