This past fall, the Cornell crew program was presented with a challenge. Due to the newly imposed seven-week off rule, the amount of time that the rowers could spend practicing was severely limited. But, for most rowers at Cornell, crew is life. The seniors possess a devotion to a sport that most students on campus will never be able to experience.
Seniors Kim Portmess and Nicole Sylvester have guided the women’s crew this year, serving as co-captains.
Nicole Sylvester, a native of Rochester, N.H., rowed at Rochester Institute of Technology her freshman year before transferring to Cornell as a sophomore. After finishing her junior year with an long lists of honors, which included a first-team All-Mid Atlantic conference selection. She also earned second-team All-America honors that season.
During this past year, Sylvester was diagnosed with serious back problems. While the crews were restricted to erg machines indoors at Teagle Hall throughout the winter, Sylvester was unable to even do that. She, along with a few other girls instead spent their time riding stationary bikes.
In Sylvester, head coach Melanie Onufrieff has seen dedication and continued commitment despite the injury.
"It’s easy for someone to fall off the pace when that happens, they don’t get to the ergs with the rest of the team and train with the rest of the team," she said. "They don’t get to feel the intensity that comes with that."
Portmess will end her three-year career of rowing for the Red this May. During Portmess’s novice year, she enjoyed an undefeated season. She and her teammates went on to win the Eastern Sprints that year, and according to Portmess, "ever since then it has been a drive to get another medal."
Portmess describes her crew experience as positive and life-changing. She quipped, "Crew means having some impressive muscles, calloused hands, and a sick love for spandex."
On a more serious note, Portmess related a few instances in which she has questioned one of Cornell’s most physically and mentally demanding sports.
"You make a lot of sacrifices throughout the year and often times you find yourself asking, ‘Why, again, am I doing this?’" she said.
Each time, though, Portmess answers her own question.
"The amount of teamwork as well as the amount of individual drive is what gets you through the tough times and this will undoubtedly transfer into anything rowers pursue outside of the sport."
Onufrieff notes that two unsung seniors, Taissa Kachala and Kinsey Keller, have also trained and worked hard.
"They have been awesome people to have around, and have come through some hard stuff, they are good team players and good workers," said Onufrieff.
Interim heavyweight coach Dan Allen walked into a special situation at the start of the season. Normally the freshman coach, Allen has seen this year’s seniors mature both physically and mentally over four years.
Allen recalled how at times he uses this unique opportunity to his advantage.
"It’s been a blast because all the guys on the team went through me as freshmen, and when they start getting a little too big for their britches, I remind them of how retarded they were as freshmen and sophomores," said Allen.
This year, the heavyweight crew will be graduating seven seniors that have been with the program four years. They include: Jonathan Packard, Seth Lozano, Josh Kweller, Ken Jurkowski, Zeph Halsey, Kevin Hackett and Garrett Cox. Senior Ben Kostka started rowing during his junior year.
Allen has seen Ken Jurkowski transform from a novice walk-on to a phenomenal athlete. Jurkowski is one of 10 to 15 collegiate athletes that has gone under six minutes on the erg machine for 2000 meters.
"He was an engineering geek coming in having done no sports in high school whatsoever, but from a physiological standpoint, he’s not normal. Most people don’t have his the perseverance and focus.
"I’m going to miss Johnathan Packard, he’s a tremendous athlete. He’s the team clown and is good for a laugh every day. He’s a lot of fun.
"Cox is really mellow and effective in the boat, and he has contributed because his calm demeanor, he doesn’t get rattled and is confident.
Allen describes Hackett as an intense athlete and a man of few words, but nonetheless one of the most dedicated athletes he has seen.
Kweller was set to graduate early in December, but instead decided to finish off his collegiate eligibility. He delayed grad school and is taking classes in addition to working 30 hours per week at the Statler.
"Kweller is the kind of guy that continues to work at it and in my eyes he has exceeded any and all expectations I had originally placed on him and he has done that year in and year out," said Allen.
Halsey entered as a lightweight recruit and, along with his teammates, has helped raise the bar for a program that was struggling during his freshman year.
Four years ago, when these seniors were freshmen, Allen told them that they had the potential to change the program.
"Every year they have come back more skilled and a little stronger," said Allen. "It’s amazing how many of them have evolved over the years, they have provided good leadership for pretty much everyone around them."
Last weekend, when the varsity boat won the Carnegie Cup for the first time in over 12 years, the seniors showed while they each bring a certain uniqueness to the table, they have meshed to form a cohesive unit that will be difficult to break in the upcoming Eastern Sprints.
The men’s lightweight crew will have 11 seniors graduate this May. Head coach Todd Kennett ’91 recruited many of these seniors, including Steven Barcelo. Barcelo is a leader of the third varsity boat, which boasts the No. 1 ranking in the country.
"His strength alone has encouraged a lot of guys to make sure they keep pressing and just working out really hard. He does a lot of extra stuff and his strength has allowed him to raise the bar on the entire squad," said Kennett.
Chad Greiner strokes the JV boat.
"I can always count on that boat to help push the varsity boat," Kennett said.
Because of his hard work and athletic ability, Kennett expects to move Greiner into the varsity boat within the next couple of weeks.
Mike Cody, Chris Moeschner, and Tristan Wietsma have been integral parts of the varsity boat for the last two years.
"They have helped raise the bar for what the Cornell lightweight varsity has been able to do," said Kennett.
Kennett noted another one of his key players, senior Nafis Smith. Smith will letter for all three of his years here at Cornell.
"He’s extremely strong. He’s been not only an example by leadership in terms of communication, but also by example. He is one of the strongest guys. He always consistently produces. He’s an all around stud," said Kennett.
"I have won two Sprints medals and been part of some great crews," said Cody, the captain of the lightweight crew. "Everything else I can reflect upon can’t be said, it can only be expressed in my own mind, and in the minds of my teammates."
Archived article by Adrienne Dunbar