What Really Matters: Rusty Callow Award Goes to Yale Third Varsity Lightweights

by Jeff Moag, Rowing News Magazine; Check out the magazine online

Just when you think you know what rowing is all about, something happens to show us what is truly important. Nobody knows that better than nine young men who rowed in Yale’s third-varsity lightweight eight at the 2006 Eastern Sprints, barely 48 hours after the death of their teammate Alexander Capelluto.

The crew’s resilience won them the Russell S. “Rusty” Callow Memorial Award, presented each year to a crew which exemplifies spirit, courage, and unity throughout the year. The award is a fitting tribute to Capelluto, a person who was gifted in almost everything but rowing. Valedictorian and president of his high school class four years running, he was brilliant, funny, and well-liked; but in the broad universe of rowing attributes, he possessed only two: a winning attitude and a strong work ethic. He had those in spades.

On the strength of his attitude, the undersized sophomore in the bow of the third varsity somehow became a team leader. “Rowing fit perfectly with the type of individual he was,” says his father, Jacques Capelluto. “Always pushing to be the very best, but doing it as part of a close-knit team. The aspect that really appealed to him was the bonding developed from the hardship endured with his teammates.”

Alex’s teammates would endure their greatest trial without him. They had finished their final practice together, a good row on a perfect spring morning. Someone ran across the street to buy a disposable camera, and the 3V lights passed a few idyllic minutes taking photos of each other strutting bare-chested across the dock and diving into the water. “I have only the best memories from that morning,” says James Schulmeister, who caught the bus back to campus with all but one of his teammates. Alex, who was preparing for a 4,000-mile bicycle trip to benefit Habitat for Humanity, started home on his bike. The 20-year-old went straight at an intersection when a delivery truck turned in front of him. He was killed instantly. 
The next morning, the Yale 3V lights sat down with their coach Eric Carcich and head lightweight coach Andy Card. A bus was waiting to take them to Sprints. But first, the crew needed to decide whether to get on it. “Losing a friend makes the race seem meaningless, but it also gave it an added weight, because what you’re doing is what you shared together,” says stroke Dave Zaragoza.

Each of the nine men in Alex’s crew needed to find his own reason to race. Many seized on the obvious: that Alex would have wanted it that way. Alex’s father took pains to convey that sentiment in the first hours after his son’s death. Between confronting his own grief and consoling family, the elder Capelluto passed a message to Berkeley College Master John Rogers, who gathered Alex’s friends and teammates for an impromptu remembrance Thursday afternoon. Go to Sprints, Jacques Capelluto urged, and honor Alex with a special effort. “Alex and I had talked about rowing, but we didn’t have to talk much for me to know how much it meant to him,” his father says. “I could see it with my own eyes.”
The team talked for a few minutes Friday morning and voted unanimously to row. They arrived at the racecourse late that afternoon, and launched hurriedly for a practice row. Then, as Card remembers it, “a massive rainbow appeared, stretching from the finish line bridge to about the 1,000-meter mark. I’m not a big one for signs, but in our state of mind, it was powerful.”

If the 2006 Eastern Sprints had been contested on Hollywood’s silver screen, the team would have rallied for a dramatic come-from-behind win; but this drama unfolded on Lake Quinsigamond, where six minutes of hard racing brought the Elis a fourth-place finish and a small measure of emotional release.

“Losing Alex made us slower in real terms, not just emotionally,” Card says. “I know the guys put on a brave face in public, but alone in the hotel rooms it had to have been tough. I know it was for me.”

On the racecourse, after Alex Capelluto’s death, his teammates channeled the physical pain they had shared with him in earlier races and during thousands of hours of practice. They welcomed the burn of an all-out physical effort, willing it to exorcise their grief.

“You’re faced with this thing you have no control over, but at least you get to go out there and take it out on an oar,” Zaragoza says. “It’s an emotional as well as a physical release.” 

Too often in rowing, we obsess about results. That’s especially true in the lead-up to a championship regatta. Classes, work, relationships, family–all of it takes a back seat to the season’s ultimate, defining crucible. We rowers nurture and celebrate the obsession. We dream of distilling nine months of practice into six transcendent minutes. Because for most of us, most of the time, nothing is more important than the Big Race.

But every so often something shows us exactly how wrong that viewpoint is. Something as small as a sunrise or as momentous as the death of a friend reminds us that all of it–the racing and training and talking technique late into the night–is merely the means to an end; and that end is not beating another crew. 

–Ed note: The Capelluto family has created the Alexander Capelluto Foundation, which awards grants to high school and college students who lack the financial means to fulfill their academic potential or to pursue community service endeavors. www.alexcap.org.

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