FAIRFAX, Va. -- The Henderson Hall Marine Corps crew team surged through the Occoquan Reservoir Nov. 4 and completed their first season at the Head of the Occoquan Regatta.
Crossing the finish line in 20:15, the Marines had their best race of the year by defeating four of the 12 teams competing in the novice-category event.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” said Brad Smith, Henderson Hall’s rowing coach. “All of the teams we were racing against are notoriously good, so it was incredible that we placed eighth.”
There were slight winds around race time, but the 3.2-mile course was empty of choppy waters and wasn’t an issue for the Marines competing in the afternoon competition. Their downfall came with the course’s sharp corners.
“We’re just not proficient at hair-pin turns yet,” said Kristina Hopper, Henderson Hall’s coxswain and a 25-year-old Tampa, Fla., native. “They need to learn how to keep up their power when lengthening or shortening their stroke.”
Another item that played a factor in their eighth-place finish was the festivities associated with the Marine Corps birthday ball that took place the night before.
“Thankfully our race wasn’t in the morning, because there were quite a few of us who were feeling the affects of celebrating,” said Sgt. Brad Pupello, Henderson Hall's team captain.
Formed only a few months before their final race, the crew team started with 10 active-duty Marines, but injuries and personal commitments shortened their roster to eight. Of those eight individuals, not one had any prior crew experience.
“We’d see all of these teams rowing down the Potomac River when our shop was at (physical training) and we thought it’d be nice to try something new,” said Pupello, a tactical data specialist. “After I looked into it, I was told about the Learn-to-Row Program. Originally we thought it’d just be a one-day thing. Wow, were we wrong.”
The Marines quickly found out rowing is far from an inexpensive sport, as their gear rentals and the Learn-to-Row Program required quite a large amount of money. Pupello approached the Semper Fit office to help subsidize some of the cost and received $1,350 to get started. While ahead on their monthly payments, the crew team still needed more than $1,200 for race fees and water time to finish the season, along with an additional $2,000 for uniforms.
“Once our team started gaining notoriety, several donors started coming out of the woodwork,” said Pupello. “Benefactors, who wish to remain anonymous, would donate anywhere from $50 to $1,000. The support we’ve received has been tremendous.”
Henderson Hall's rowing coach also implored a little 20th-century ingenuity of his own to help his team along the way.
“I auctioned two Marine Corps crew hats on EBAY,” said Smith, who has more than 20 years of crew experience. “One went for $125 and the other came in at $100. But even with all of the donations we received, everyone on the team has paid about three to four hundred dollars out of pocket.”
After their down payments were made, the Henderson Hall crew team made their way to the Potomac River for their first rowing experience.
“It was like a Keystone Cops movie,” said Smith, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “No two blades were hitting the water at the same time. They were like St. Bernard puppies that had a lot of strength, but kept tripping over their own feet.”
It takes three to six months to learn the basics of rowing, according to Smith. However, for the Henderson Hall crew team, they only had eight weeks before their experience would be tested in competition.
“Most crew teams practice six days a week for a few hours, so we were already behind when we started,” said Smith.
Once their command accepted a rowing physical fitness training regiment, the Henderson Hall crew team met every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning to sharpen their skills.
“Sometimes we’d have to stay at work all night then go straight to practice,” said Sgt. Lee Canda, a 29-year-old Clinton, Md., native and network administrator. “I had to get up at four in the morning just to make it there on time.”
Even though burning the candle at both ends, Pupello said the crew team quickly gelled together as one cohesive unit after a few weeks on the water.
“We’re used to receiving orders,” explained the 28-year-old Tampa, Fla., native. “On top of that we already work with cadence, so our learning curve was much more rapid than other novice groups.”
Their first regatta on Sept. 30 allowed the Marines to gauge how far they had come from since the opening week of practice. While competing at the collegiate level against athletes that were on scholarships or had been rowing for several years, they still had a good showing.
“That first race was the drive that made them want to do better,” said Smith. “Technique usually wins over strength, so we still had a lot to work on.”
Before their last race at the Head of the Occoquan Regatta, the Marines finished their 3.2-mile practice course in 17:30.
“The rate of improvement in the last week alone has been remarkable,” said Smith. “It’s like they shot up from second grade to sixth grade. I have a lot of other projects, but I see myself coaching this team for a long time to come.”
The fall rowing season might have concluded, but the Henderson Hall crew team already has a winter training schedule set up and hopes to be back out on the water by January. To them, what started out as simple Saturday-morning hobby turned into a juggernaut that nobody could stop.
“Our hope is that it’ll expand from just our shop,” said Sgt. Justin Darin, a 22-year-old Geneseo, Ill., native and network administrator. “Right now it’s just about keeping the team alive. Half of us won’t be returning next year, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”
For any Marines stationed in the National Capital Region that are interested in participating in the next crew season, contact Brad Smith at 202-965-7434
“I dare any Marine to see how hard rowing really is,” said Smith. “Half of them would probably drop out.”