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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.
“I thought, ‘Wow, we’re every bit as good as they are,’” Haas says. “I realized I could be a part of something great.”
Great they were and still are, much to the chagrin of many East coast rowing powerhouses. Recently, east coast prep schools Andover and St. Paul’s have removed CJRC from the spring schedule—it’s just not worth it.
“We went after those prep schools kids,” Kummer recalls. “We didn’t know any better. In Kentucky, kids used to ask, ‘Rowing? Canoeing? What is that? Why don’t you play basketball, a real sport?’ We just took that aggression out on crews that got more respect.”
GO EAST, YOUNG MEN
The three Midwesterners all eventually packed up and took their gig out east.
Back east, people know about rowing. People care—lining the banks of the Charles as dozens of boats glide by each weekend. In Cincinnati, rowing is but a whisper amongst louder conversations of high school football and baseball—no matter the national championship hardware.
“Our high school yearbook didn’t have any mention of rowing in it at all,” Haas says. “We didn’t get any respect in our hometown.”
They left the skeptics behind in Cincinnati. They left behind high school trophies in the hopes of winning some collegiate hardware.
And, they are adamant, they left behind the putrid Licking River.
“Here your blades don’t hit too many rats with rigor mortis,” Kummer says. “And I haven’t seen a dead pig here yet.”
“I used to see at least two condoms in the water every day,” chimes in Haas.
Luff agrees. “Yeah, and I think there was a dead body in there once.”
The Charles has indeed been friendly to the CJRC trio, with vermin-free waters just one of the perks offered them at Newell Boathouse.
Haas and Kummer entered the Crimson program in September of 2001, months after the lightweights had sprinted to a national title in Camden, N.J. In 2003, when Luff came to Cambridge, the lightweights had claimed the IRA crown yet again the previous spring.
It didn’t take long for the CJRC trio to add more hardware to an already impressive Harvard collection. Haas tried out the heavyweight ranks his freshman year, stroking the first novice boat to an Eastern Sprints title in 2002. Seven-seat Kummer and Haas were both members of the 2003 national championship varsity lightweight crew. Luff won a 2004 IRA title with the first freshman four.
This year, all three are members of the Crimson varsity crew gunning for its third national title in five years. Haas sits in four seat, Luff is ahead of him in five, and Kummer mans the seven-seat.
For the first time ever, the three of them are in the same eight. Luff just missed the cut for the CJRC varsity eight during Huff and Kummer’s senior year.
“Mike and I were in the second boat our sophomore year [of high school], and I drove Marc from school to practice every day for two years,” Haas said. “Day-to-day rowing with these guys is more special to me than winning a national championship.”
But then again, winning national championships is just old hat to this bunch.
—Staff writer Aidan E. Tait can be reached at email@example.com.
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