For the first three minutes of the 2014 EARC Sprints, the lightweight men’s Cornell rowing team could spot every boat in their wake but the Yale boat, which was holding a steady lead. Every painstaking second of those minutes was a daunting reminder of the uncertainty of their new standing. Now, toting an undefeated regular season record and a new reputation as “top dog,” the Red was on track to losing out to Yale at the Sprints Championship. All eyes were on the eight rowers and their coxswain. Their reputation was on the line.
After dethroning the Bulldogs on its home course five weeks prior, the Red had recently taken over as number one. It was a rainy day and the water was choppy, but Cornell was able to pull through by a definitive three and a half seconds.
Senior Will Oprea remembers those dreadful first three minutes his sophomore year — the particularly helpless feeling of falling behind, the lactic acid building up in his muscles and, perhaps most poignantly, the searing reminder of what was at stake if they couldn’t pull through.
“Over the course of the entire year, we put about three hours of training into each second of that race,” Oprea said. The gravity of their situation only grew as time crawled by, as the race grew closer and closer to its end. “Every second needed to be perfect.”
In the last three minutes of the race, the crew “locked in.” With roughly 20 seconds left, the Red drew even with Yale, and, with a final burst of strength, squeezed by to win by under a second. It was a huge comeback, and Cornell’s 2014 lightweight rowing team solidified its undefeated record and won the Sprints Championship for the first time since 2008.
If you want to read a list of Will Oprea’s accolades, prepare to get comfortable. The list goes on and on. And his achievements don’t stop at the collegiate level. Oprea has had multiple opportunities to train with the junior US National Team and currently has Olympic aspirations for the future. Still, Oprea recalls that season and his team’s miraculous comeback at the 2014 EARC Sprints as his proudest achievement in his rowing career. His reason is simple: “I think early on in my Cornell career, I decided that I wanted to represent Cornell over the national team or anything else.”
If you take away the accolades, the success, the national attention and the Olympic aspirations from Oprea, what you’re really left with is a true, die-hard Cornellian, through and through.
Oprea’s passion for his team didn’t occur immediately — it was forged over four years of dedication and success. In fact, coming into Cornell, Oprea had prospects for his future far beyond the collegiate sphere. He was introduced to the international rowing scene early on, when his crew from Chaminade High School in Mineola, N.Y. earned fourth place out of 76 crews at the 2010 Head of the Charles Regatta, the premiere international regatta for the fall. This performance earned the young five-time letter winner some national attention.
Later on in his senior year, Oprea attended the US Rowing Junior National Team Sweep Selection Camp, which identified 32 elite oarsmen in the country to compete for a spot on the Junior National Team. They didn’t have a lightweight team, so he found himself competing against 30 or so heavyweight athletes. “Just monsters,” he said, reflecting on the absurdity of his competition. “These guys would range from 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-5, weighing anywhere from 185 to 200 pounds. I was the third smallest guy at the camp, and I was cut.”
Despite his impressive performance freshman year at Cornell —a silver medal finish at the 2013 EARC Sprints which Oprea bitterly recalls as “disappointing” — his itch to compete on the international stage for the U.S. only worsened. Oprea was the youngest of 12 oarsmen selected to train and compete for a spot on the U.S. lightweight men’s team at the U23 World Rowing Championships. Only four of these 12 oarsmen would end up with a spot on the team. Being one of the youngest and most inexperienced oarsman at the training sight, Oprea was once again not selected.
Oprea’s Cornell career blossomed during his sophomore year. As the youngest rower on Cornell’s varsity lightweight lineup, he helped the team secure an undefeated season and a national championship. Following the team’s tight finish with Yale at the 2014 EARC Sprints, the Red was invited to row at the 175th Henley Royal Regatta. In terms of collegiate rowing, the Henley Royal Regatta is without a doubt the best known regatta in the world. The Red’s lightweight crew was on a tear — the season had been a long, hard-fought success, and the Royal Regatta would have been the perfect way to end the season, to, “ride it out with the boys.”
That summer, when Oprea was invited back to compete for a spot on the national team, the ambitious sophomore was presented with a tough decision. The national team would be a personal, long-term investment — a chance to develop and expose his career to the international arena as an oarsman for the US national team. While each year the team’s training culminates in the U23 World Championship Regatta, the real goal of the program is to foster talent during the quadrennial to prepare for the Olympic games. On the other hand, racing in the Henley Royal Regatta was a de facto decision to limit his short-term prospects to the collegiate world.
The true value in athletic competition is often clouded by obsession with victory and glory. Kobe Bryant, “the Black Mamba,” with his ruthless, competitive attitude and overwhelming drive, is often considered the gold standard. Some might argue, however, that the true value of sports are the communities and cultures we build from them, the institutions we form around them and the legacies we forge with them. Value is self-defined; many would have chosen to take the national team route — the Olympics beckon like nothing else. Even if it’s just a long-shot, how could you pass up that opportunity? For Oprea, however, nothing was more important than the run the Red was on that year.
“I was only concerned with the success of the program,” Oprea recalled.
Oprea and his crew travelled to the Henley Royal Regatta that summer and lost in the semi-finals to Oxford-Brookes. Rather than spending his summer rowing with the Junior National Team, constantly worrying about his future and “making the cut,” Oprea finished the storybook season with his teammates and friends, forging his Cornell legacy and finding time to appreciate the scenery on the River Thames.
“I remember finding a nice picture of a crew rowing up the course which showed Henley’s beautiful landscape,” Oprea said. “On that final day we raced, we stopped for a moment because of boat traffic. I turned around in the boat to look up the race course, and I was in the same position as where the crew was in that picture. It was a very surreal moment. I had made the dream come true.”
As amazing as that sophomore year was, Oprea went on to do it again, leading his team to another undefeated season and national championship victory the following year. Yet this year, the team’s performance has fallen off. He recently suffered his first defeats at the Varsity level in back-to-back races against Princeton, Yale and Columbia earlier this year. Seeing these as a sort of “wake up calls,” Oprea is determined to, “reinvigorate the same level of focus and attention to detail,” the men had in the previous two seasons.
Following the loss, the Red swept Dartmouth in three races at the Baggaley Bowl. This could, perhaps, be a sign of positive things to come at this year’s EARC Sprint Championships on May 13 through 15.
Oprea’s Olympic opportunities going forward are tenuous at best. In an effort to balance out gender representation in the 2020 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee will be cutting certain men’s competitions. FISA, the governing body of world rowing, made three proposals to the IOC to “make its case” for rowing’s place in the Olympics. All three of these proposals cut the lightweight men’s straight four event, “leaving many lightweight rowers wondering ‘why?’” according to Oprea. “If it’s not an Olympic event, what does this do to elite lightweight rowing in our country?”
The IOC will not make any decisions until February of 2017. Until then, all proposals by FISA are up for deliberation. In addition, applications to train with the U23 national team are due May 8. This team would ultimately train for the 2016 rowing championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands on August 21 and disband thereafter. If Oprea were to continue rowing, he would then move to Oklahoma City and train with the senior national lightweight team. Both of these programs’ futures, however, are highly contingent upon the IOC’s decision come February.
Lightweight oarsmen currently do not know what U.S. Rowing’s plan is for elite lightweight rowing athletes for the next quadrennial if they decide to cut lightweight men’s rowing from the Olympics as outlined by all three of FISA’s proposals. Put simply, Oprea has no idea where he’ll be rowing, who he will be rowing with or what he will even be rowing for come February. The entire U.S. lightweight men’s rowing arena could shift dramatically.
Despite his doubts, Oprea plans on applying for the U23 team this summer to compete in the Rotterdam regatta. “The final goal I think of every elite level athlete is to eventually represent the US at the Olympics,” he lamented. Logistically, his goals may be a mere pipe dream; however, after having committed, “an absurd amount of time and passion,” to the sport, Oprea is unwilling to, “let the opportunity to represent the United States and Cornell at the highest level of [his] sport go wasted.”
Olympian or not, Oprea’s legacy as a two-year first time all Ivy lightweight oarsman at Cornell will remain in the record books for decades to come. While his Olympic potential might have been squandered, Oprea does not look back.
“I am so grateful to have had the alumni’s support in sending us to the Henley Royal Regatta,” Oprea said. “The personal satisfaction I may have gotten from making the National Team was far outweighed by the opportunity to finish the story with those group of guys after an incredible year.”
At the end of the day, Oprea is a die-hard Cornellian. In a school that cannot even rally support for its own homecoming games, his passion for Cornell certainly is a breath of fresh air.