Maybe they were just typical Midwestern kids with nothing to do. Maybe they all came to try it out, splash around in the water for a while, and call it a day. Maybe the baseball field or the basketball court or the swimming pool didn’t feel quite right.
Maybe that’s how it all started.
But with the sun’s reflection dancing on the Licking River and the Cincinnati Junior Rowing Club coxswain calling out yet another power 10 during the longest of afternoon practices, it’s all too clear that the beginning doesn’t matter.
It’s a factory, this dilapidated boathouse near Cincinnati, Ohio. A factory that has produced one of the finest high school rowing clubs in the United States from the ground up. A factory that annually brings in a rag-tag, gangly group of teenagers and turns them into national champions.
Harvard lightweight rowers Patrick Haas, Michael Kummer, and Marc Luff were part of the bunch that crossed the threshold of the boathouse in Newport, Kentucky, the sacred ground of the CJRC, and never turned around.
“I remember the first days of the season,” Luff says. “You’d see 150-pound guys sitting in spandex with no shirt on in the boathouse and wonder how it’s going to happen this year.”
“The longer I go on, the farther I get away from it, the more I’m starting to get a perspective of what was happening there—the magic, I guess,” he adds.
All three were high school national champions. All three are college national champions. The factory would be proud.
LIFE ON THE LICKING RIVER
Current lightweight captain and Harvard senior Haas was a swimmer. Fellow senior Kummer was a hayseed from northern Kentucky looking for a sport to call his own. Sophomore Luff hailed from Batesville, Indiana, went to St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, and was kept out of Ohio sports by a law prohibiting out-of-state residents from participating in school athletic programs.
The CJRC didn’t care about any of that. The club welcomed the three of them as high school freshmen and quickly set to work doing what it does every year: win.
As a senior, Haas stroked the CJRC first varsity boat that won the 2001 national championship. Kummer was the two-seat of the same boat. As a senior in 2003, Luff sat four-seat of a boat that won another national title by 0.5 seconds.
They rarely lose, these oarsmen. They’re to rowing what De La Salle High School in Concord, California, is to football. When—or if—they lose, people talk.
“As a senior in high school, my coach told me, ‘You’re a national champion in your sport,’” Kummer says. “Taking satisfaction for being the best in the nation or part of a storied program—that took a long time to acclimate myself to.”
But when the CJRC boats whipped premier prep school competition on their annual trips to the east coast, the trio began to take notice of what they had in their boathouse.