Trio says goodbye to high school 2,500 miles from home

Members of the 2009 Mt. Baker men’s varsity 8s team will compete in Cincinnati, Ohio, this week at the U.S. rowing competition. Back row: Bailey Willis, Thomas Ehlers, Grant Carlson, Davis Lockett and Coach Stefan Koch. Middle: Ai Tanaka. Front row: Henry Cryst, Cole Johnson, Luke Gering and Robert Capelluto. - Contributed photo
Members of the 2009 Mt. Baker men’s varsity 8s team will compete in Cincinnati, Ohio, this week at the U.S. rowing competition. Back row: Bailey Willis, Thomas Ehlers, Grant Carlson, Davis Lockett and Coach Stefan Koch. Middle: Ai Tanaka. Front row: Henry Cryst, Cole Johnson, Luke Gering and Robert Capelluto.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Four years in the making — that’s what a high school graduation is to many students. The chance to say goodbye to classmates and teachers, and a moment in time to celebrate a great accomplishment. Three Mercer Island High School students are foregoing the celebration to work on a different accomplishment, rowing at the national rowing competition in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Thomas Ehlers, Ai Tanaka and Robert Capelluto, all seniors at MIHS, are members of the Mt. Baker varsity 8s crew team, which qualified for the national competition after regionals in Vancouver, Wash., in the middle of May.

“I found the conflicting dates last fall, but I didn’t really think about it,” said Ehlers.

“Actually, the team made a goal not to even talk about it until regionals,” said Capelluto of the competing dates for graduation and nationals.

The team, along with coaches, family members and other crew teams from Mt. Baker that qualified, headed off to Ohio yesterday and will spend today and tomorrow preparing for the races which take place all weekend.

“The reason it’s a big deal really is because it’s the last time we’ll all be together,” said Capelluto of missing graduation. He added that the actual graduation ceremony, sitting in the Convention Center for hours, seemed like it might be kind of boring. The group cares more about missing the senior assembly and graduation party.

“But it should be worth it,” said Tanaka.

“The whole experience, when you weigh it out — it’s more of a life experience. A lot of people say we’re crazy for missing it,” said Capelluto. All three said that in many ways, they worked harder at crew over the last several years than perhaps during high school. But the trio said that despite being thousands of miles away, they still plan to celebrate, at least a little. A small graduation party is planned for them while in Ohio.

The journey to Ohio began four years ago when Ehlers joined the team upon a friend’s suggestion during his freshman year at MIHS. Tanaka and Capelluto joined the sport the following year, as sophomores, looking for something new and at the suggestion of friends.

Competing against the best rowers in the nation was an easy addition to the group’s list of favorite high school experiences, in many ways because hitting this level highlights years of strenuous work. Capelluto said he feels that rowing at nationals outweighs anything else he has done in the academic arena. The one downside: the team has been working twice as hard for the upcoming races while everyone else is winding down.

“Everyone else gets to enjoy summer, and we’re working twice as hard with two practices a day,” said Capelluto. Occasionally, the hours of back-breaking work, staring at the same person’s back day after day while skimming across the water, can get a little old, Capelluto said. But the group agreed that the end result is more than worth it.

All three said that the best part about being out on the water is the feeling of going fast, which helps to overcome the sport’s more painful aspects.

“It’s hard to describe why we like [crew] because it can be so extremely painful. It doesn’t make sense to a lot of people,” said Capelluto of the intrigue of rowing. For enduring the pain, the team gets some pretty amazing views, often from a place where many don’t travel: the middle of Lake Washington. Ehlers said his favorite place to row is heading north on Lake Washington toward Highway 520, along the Seattle shoreline, seeing the sights.

“I like watching the sun rise and seeing Mt. Rainier over the water,” he said. One of the places where the team spends a lot of time is the area around the I-90 floating bridge. As it turns out, the bridge just happens to be 2,000 meters long, the exact length of most race courses, including the course in Cincinnati.

After regionals, the team discussed what qualifying for the national competition meant.

“Our coach said he completely understood if any of us choose graduation over nationals,” said Tanaka. While Tanaka and Capelluto said it was a pretty easy choice for them, Ehlers admitted that the idea took a little while to get used to.

“Honestly, I really wanted to go to graduation,” he said. But in the end, the chance to row at nationals with the team he had been a part of for the past four years took top bidding.

This week is the end of two eras for the group — finishing high school and saying goodbye to the first rowing club that they belonged to. Ehlers will head south to attend the University of California at Berkeley, where he will row as a member of a team currently ranked No. 2 in the nation. He said he will spend the summer training for the fall, as well as prepping for a nationals selection team. If chosen, he would represent the United States in August at the junior world championships in France.

Capelluto will be moving north to Bellingham to attend Western Washington University and to become a member of the men’s club crew team. He said that while the rowing will not be as intense as what Ehlers is gearing up for, he is excited to continue in the sport. Tanaka is staying close, going to the University of Washington, where he will be a coxswain with the Huskies.

“I’m going to miss Seattle, just as a city,” said Ehlers of the move to college. “Going to San Francisco, it’s going to be different.”

“I’ll miss my teammates,” said Capelluto. “There is a special bond we form, knowing they push themselves as hard as you do.”

The 2009 U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships will be held June 12-14 on Harsha Lake outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. MIHS commencement beings at 7 p.m. at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center tomorrow, June 11. Tickets are required. Doors open at 6:15 p.m.

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