Second No More

  • May 6, 2020

Written by members of SJU crew (edited by Ed Levin)

This headline, “SECOND NO MORE” from the May 10 Philadelphia Inquirer’s recap of the 1970 Dad Vail Varsity Heavyweight Eight Final, perfectly describes the Saint Joseph’s College crew’s 1970 racing season and the need to avenge Saint Joseph’s only loss in 1969 – a 2nd place finish to a great Georgetown crew in the final of the Dad Vails.

To say revenge was on the minds of the Hawks crew heading into the 1970 Dad Vail Regatta was an understatement. Not only were they looking to gain a measure of revenge from the 1969 Dad Vail finals, Saint Joseph’s was also looking to avenge their two losses to Georgetown in the 1970 campaign with both being by less than a length after holding early leads.

As we headed into Dad Vail weekend, Coach Joe Toland presented us with a bit of an unconventional racing plan for the weekend. We were told to race the opening heat as hard as we could to the 1000m mark, separate from the pack, and cruise in. It worked to perfection. The next morning’s semi-final plan was similar but slightly different. After sprinting to the bridge, the plan was to stay in contention and qualify, but conserve energy for the afternoon’s final. We finished a controlled second, following the plan to get an outside lane away from Georgetown in the Final. We felt really positive about our two races and left for lunch eager to put everything on the line in the afternoon’s Championship race.

When we got back to Vesper Boat Club locker room, two hours before the final, there was absolute quiet but a relaxed focus among us. Coach gave us the race plan. It was simple but the right one – “Race to the bridge, answer any challenges, sprint at the Island”.  We launched with a level of total commitment. On our row up to the starting line, it felt like we had the best pre-race warm up and practice starts of the season. The boat had quickness yet relaxation in all the pieces. This was a seasoned, race hardened crew with seven of the nine rowers returning from last year’s Dad Vail boat.

As we lined up for the final, there was a palpable tension in every seat. We didn’t want to let down any one of our teammates, and we especially didn’t want to let down Coach Toland, whose crews had finished second, three times in the past. We knew Joe was there with us and we knew he was watching us from the west bank as he always did at the start

We had changed our start from three short quick strokes to three full, upright strokes. This helped us to fly off the line at 40 reps per minute and take a 2-seat lead. Georgetown, U. Mass, and Trinity were right with us for the first 300 meters. By 500 meters, we had found our rhythm and lengthened the lead to almost a length. We came past the Canoe club with a full-length lead over Georgetown and the two crews were moving away from the field. With 700 meters left, we had open water, and someone shouted, “we’re going to win the Vails.” The boat responded with a great push that propelled us to the top of the Island where we were scheduled to start our sprint. But to a man, we didn’t want to change our flow and risk any sloppy strokes. We lengthened to a powerful 34 reps per minute, held off Georgetown’s sprint to win the first Dad Vail Gold Medal in the Varsity Heavyweight Eight by four seconds.

The celebration was on. Our coxswain, one of the three seniors in the crew who had previously finished third, then second, tried to climb over the crew. Our stroke man, a freshman, racing for the first time in the V8 admitted later he was terrified before the race, calmly rescued him from falling in. We knew we had fulfilled our mission to win the Vails for Coach Toland. We shouted to him as he stood on the west bank finish line having followed the race down the drive.

For Joe and for each of us, the curse was broken. We were “Second No More”.

A great race and a Great Victory that has bound us together forever.