By Joseph Santoliquito
NEWTOWN SQUARE (CBS) — A numbing feeling crept in when the news quickly circulated. The kind of news no one wants to hear. Tweets and texts no one wants to believe.
One instant their teammate, their friend, Paul Pratt, was there in the same boat they were in. And the next moment, the Episcopal Academy crew team heard he was gone.
Pratt, a junior on the Churchmen’s heavyweight four boat, was killed in a one-car accident on Thursday, May 16. The next day, his friends had to carry on without him in the prestigious Stotesbury Cup Regatta.
Episcopal placed third in the Stotesbury and something pretty remarkable happened next. A group of young men that spoke among each other about carrying on under extreme circumstances went on to win the Scholastic Rowing Association of America National Regatta on the Cooper River (New Jersey) May 24-25.
Now they’re aiming — buoyed by the mantra “Pulling for Paul” — at the USRowing Youth National Championships this weekend (June 7-9) on Melton Hill Lake in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
It’s been an arduous journey for Episcopal crew coach Molly Konopka and her team, made up of Nick Mead, James Konopka (Molly’s son), Andrew Giannetta, Guillaume Furey and Jack Alden, plus coxswain Jimmy Larkin.
“As a coach, you always tell kids they can do what they really don’t think they can do, and this is another example,” said Molly Konopka, the Churchmen’s coach since 1997. “Physically, you might say you can’t go any further, and find you can go further. That’s what this group of kids found out. Emotionally, you think ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ In fact, you can. It’s hard and it’s sad, but the kids can do it.
“We do it to honor Paul. What’s the most wonderful about this situation is we have a whole team of 50 kids that were completely supportive of each other. They weren’t thinking about themselves. They were thinking about everyone around them. It’s been an amazing thing to see.”
Episcopal’s crew team could have gone in one of two directions: Either shut down, or rise up. It’s obviously been the latter.
The Churchmen have been able to forge forward through teary eyes with memories of a kid who had a spontaneous sense of humor that could light up a room. Pratt overcame a debilitating hand injury when he lost portions of two fingers to still row.
In 2008, Episcopal won two national titles. But this tragedy has tested the resolve of this storied Pennsylvania rowing program.
“We could have said ‘No, we can’t row’ and I don’t think anyone would have questioned that,” Molly said. “We discussed whether or not anyone should race. We decided it should be a choice for each boat. Paul was the best of adolescents. He was a big kid who was enthusiastic about everything. He got 80 years worth of life in his short 18 years. And I think Paul would want us to go on for him. He made things more fun because he worked so hard.”
Larkin entered Episcopal the same time Pratt did. Pratt had that depth of ability to make everyone around him better, make them demand more of themselves. Even at 5 a.m. when most high school athletes are asleep, Pratt was grinding on the river, bringing high energy to what in most cases could be lethargic mornings.
“It’s been a few weeks now and it still hasn’t sunk in yet,” Larkin said. “You spend all of this time with this kid and all of a sudden everything changes. Stotesbury was so helpful for us in figuring things out. But every day we’re in that boat, it reminds you of what’s happening and what we’re doing this for.”
James Konopka goes way back to fifth grade with Pratt.
“After we won the city championship last year, the tradition is you throw in the coxswain after you win — and only throw in the coxswain,” James recalled. “Paul decided that he, too, wanted to jump in. That was highly unusual, but then again, that was Paul. He was like that. He’d do something completely out of the blue and we’d all laugh.
“We were all together the previous day during practice, and the next morning my father woke me up telling me Paul was gone. I couldn’t believe it. We were all in a lot of shock. We got together to discuss if we should row or not. Then we all thought if Paul was here, he’d want us to row — so we row for him.”
Paul Pratt’s parents have watched the Episcopal crew closely. They were there cheering the Churchmen on at the scholastic nationals.
“You can still feel him, like he’s with us in the boat,” Larkin said. “There is a special motivation we have and we’ll take it with us to youth nationals. There was one point at scholastic nationals where I started yelling ‘Do it for Paul,’ and you could feel the boat pick right up out of the water.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.