Courtesy of Todd P. Kennett

Senior Jack Robinson carrying his oars down to the erg at the Cornell Rowing Center.

May 9, 2022

Cornell Heavyweight Rowing Honors Jack Robinson, “One of the Greats”

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On Feb. 2, 2022, John “Jack” Reynolds Robinson ’22 passed away after an 11-year battle with osteosarcoma. Robinson was a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in Economics and Government. During his time at Cornell, Robinson was known as a dedicated student, peer, mentor and loyal friend. To the Men’s Heavyweight Rowing team, however, Robinson meant much more. 

Rowing was Robinson’s passion. During his time in high school, Robinson was a member of the Community Rowing Competitive Youth team, earning first, second and fourth place titles in national regattas. Upon his graduation from Milton Academy, Robinson was one of only seven coxswains selected to represent the U.S. at the Junior Rowing World Championships.

In 2018, Robinson started his freshman year at Cornell, serving as coxswain in the third and fourth varsity eight, leading the team in eight races during his debut year. By his sophomore year, Robinson had worked his way up to coxing the Cornell A 4+ and Cornell C 8+ teams. 

However, in the apex of Robinson’s sophomore spring season, the team’s races were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While this presented an innumerable amount of difficulties for the team, Robinson remained persistent and determined. 

“Jack was the one who always had high standards and high expectations,” said sophomore teammate Marko Djuranovic. “He was the one who is always pushing us to reach our full potential.” 

During this time, he earned the title of co-captain, using his leadership skills to implore each of his rowers to tarry on despite the extensive break from competition. Of the heavyweight program’s 150 years, Robinson represents one of only a few coxswains to serve as captain. 

“During COVID, that was the time that Jack really shone,” said junior captain Max Kreutzelman. “Jack really took the reins and made sure everyone was accounted for. He made sure that everything went smoothly at a time when we didn’t really know what was going to happen on a day-to-day basis.”

Robinson was destined for his co-captain role, according to a memoir written by Head Coach Todd Kennett. 

“Despite the constant oppression of COVID rules, Jack was the one who seemed to push the most,” Kennett wrote in his memoir. “I think he was born for the job, or maybe he had just been waiting his entire life for that moment, but there was no doubt: this team was his, and it was going to rise again if he had anything to say about it.”

Upon earning the role of co-captain, Robinson’s impassioned leadership style brought the team to new heights.

“Jack was exceptional,” Djuranovic said. “Jack was competitive, very competitive. If someone was in front of us [during a race], he would always urge us and give us the spark we needed to do better and regain our speed. You could just hear the energy and enthusiasm in his voice. The smallest things in rowing can make a boat go faster, so having a coxswain like Jack who knows a lot can help you tremendously.”

Robinson’s intense passion and knowledge of the sport allowed him to help his team members markedly improve their skills in the water. 

“On the water, Jack was just relentless,” Kreutzelman said. “In my years, I’ve never met such a rower or coxswain who has had as much of an effect on my rowing as Jack. In terms of his overall outlook on rowing, how his technique was poised in the boat, and just his vocabulary as a cox, Jack was just able to push everyone and it was amazing.”

According to his teammates, Robinson’s love for the water seeped into all areas of his role as captain. 

“He loved fishing, and he loved rowing,” said Kreutzelman. “He loved everything about the team and everything that rowing brought to his life, and I really think that’s why he took every possible chance to use his time to row and to call.”

However, it was primarily Robinson’s character that allowed him to power the team.

“He was really the glue of the team,” Kreutzelman said. “He brought so much to the boat in terms of making calls, but also making sure that everyone was in line and that everyone came together.”

It was in the beginning of this year’s spring season that Robinson demonstrated the greatest devotion to his team. Despite his deteriorating health, he accompanied the team on their annual Florida training camp. According to Kennett, Robinson’s “Make-a-Wish” moment was to attend the trip with his team. 

“Imagine that,” Kennett wrote in his memoir. “21 years old, captain of the heavyweight crew at Cornell and your make-a-wish moment, your final bucket list item, is to attend the Florida training trip with your team.”

Just a short while after, Robinson passed away in his family home. During the trip, he rowed with the team for the last time before his passing. 

“His last row was in Florida,” Djuranovic said. “We did a couple of 500’s and obviously, our boat was going to win but we all said ‘Let’s give him a good row.’ And I am honored to have been a part of that.”

“Our job was not to show Jack pity, or try to sooth or comfort him,” Kennett wrote in his memoir. “But rather make the best boat speed we possibly can. That will be what will make him the happiest. That is our job.”

The following month, the team traveled down to Boston, Mass. to pay their respects to their captain.

When the team started for the bus, a myriad of photos from Robinson’s rowing career awaited them. The bus was adorned with images of him with his team, poised in the coxing position, and overlooking the calm surface of Cayuga. 

Around the images swirled words and sayings that the team used to describe him, such as “Unyielding,” “Burning Enthusiasm,” “Stoic,” “Commitment to Excellence” and the adage of “Live It, Fight It, Endure.” The owner of Swarthout Coaches, John Miskulin, was so touched by Robinson’s story that he surprised the team with a visual testament of his impact and leadership. 

“It was almost like a pilgrimage for our leader,” Kennett wrote in his memoir. “The guys were stunned, and just seeing it was nothing less than breath stopping for all of us. Just the thought of the bus company acknowledging Jack was touching, but to do this without our knowing was stunning.”

Of the over 500 people to attend the funeral, about 100 of them were Robinson’s former teammates, stretching from his high school rowing career, all the way to his friendships formed at Cornell. 

“It was absolutely beautiful and amazing and sad at the same time,” said Kreutzelman. “Having everyone stand up and having Jack’s little brother be able to see who Jack coached, who Jack taught how to row and how Jack touched every one of our hearts. We all loved him so much. It was such a powerful moment.”

The team rededicated the Ackerman Cup, awarded for camaraderie, spirit and competitiveness, to include Robinson – now called the “Ackerman-Robinson Cup.” Embossed on the cup is his Cornell netID, JRR333, along with inspiring words and phrases that embody his character and his lasting legacy upon the Cornell Heavyweight program. 

Throughout his entire Cornell career, Robinson exhibited an unwavering devotion to his team. Even still, the crew pulls inspiration from him, his memory providing a unifying spirit during each of the team’s races. 

“What Jack meant to these guys was enormous,” said Kennett. “Jack’s memory is the biggest binding factor right now. A lot of their motivation stems from the work he put in and how much Jack loved rowing and loved this team – a lot of this is due to Jack.”

For their competitions, the team has modified a call, one which signals for the team to power ahead in order to overcome another boat, to honor him. 

“Instead of ‘Power Ten,’ we all agreed it was going to be ‘Give me Ten for Jack,’” Djuranovic said. “When we called it, we really went for it, and we walked through the opponent’s boat.”

So far this season, the men’s heavyweight team has secured all first and second place titles, their Varsity Eight team recently sweeping weekend races against Oregon State, Penn, and Georgetown. 

The Cornell Heavyweight Rowing team will continue to strive for greatness, honoring their captain with each stroke of their oars. 

“Jack never stopped fighting, to be the best, to try to make us win, and I am so sad, but relieved, he has some peace after all those years of not showing it, of dealing with the pain,” Kennett wrote in his memoir. “Jack will continue to live with me and our program. Over my 34 years of rowing, I know you only run into a character like Jack a few times, someone who has an obstacle to overcome, and does it ten times over.”

Kreutzelman echoed Coach Kennett’s sentiments, proclaiming Robinson as “one of the Cornell greats.” 

“You can speak upon the Olympians that have been in the program, and I’d put Jack right up on the board with them,” said Kreutzelman. “They may have the strength and power to win, but Jack brought so much to the table in terms of culture, honesty, enthusiasm and tough love. He brought it all.”