Rowing teams share a special bond, and at Holy Cross, they’ll share an awful grief

16holycross - Grace Rett, a sophomore at Holy Cross, was identified as one of the victims. (College of the Holy Cross)
College of the Holy Cross
Holy Cross sophomore Grace Rett, 20, died in an accident involving a team van in Florida Wednesday.

The Florida crash that claimed the life of Holy Cross rower Grace Rett will surely be explained someday. But it will never make sense.

It will never be logical that Rett’s life ended so soon, never be fair that such an accomplished young athlete was cut down in her prime, never be right that devastated teammates and coaches will be forever connected by this unimaginable tragedy.

The foremost heartbreak certainly lies with the Rett family, with the parents and sister the 20-year-old from Uxbridge left behind, and the other relatives who knew and loved her most. They are experiencing a brand of loss no family should be burdened to bear.


But as our sympathies spread beyond the innermost circle of Rett’s life, they reach, and forever touch, the team she left behind, too, as their landscape has been unbearably altered. For all the value of getting involved in sports, perhaps nothing is better than becoming part of a greater whole, of finding a place in a group of like-minded individuals, all willing to work together to achieve a common goal.

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Our teammates very often become treasured lifelong friends, standing up at our weddings and celebrating the birth of our children, reflecting the bonds built through all those hard practices, intense competitions, and yes, those bus rides in high school or van rides in college.

And within the world of team sports, there is a special level of commitment in joining crew.

Rowers know what I mean.

Grace Rett chose a sport that doesn’t play to sold-out stadiums or packed arenas, but does demand pre-dawn practices on frigid waters. She chose a sport whose motto can be boiled down to five words: “I can’t. I have crew.”


She chose a sport that was just getting started back when she was a freshman at her small Catholic high school in Connecticut, one her enthusiasm helped build into one that propelled her to become the first Marianapolis Prep graduate to join a college rowing team.

She chose a sport that would take her to Vero Beach, Fla., with her teammates for warm-weather training, chopping weeks off their winter break to work out rather than taking a break in the spring to hang out.

She chose a sport that clearly chose her right back, one she enjoyed enough to commit herself to breaking a world record this past December, her 62-plus straight hours rowing on an indoor machine highlighted in a story in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.

“I’m not usually someone who stays up late,” she told the paper.

She was far more likely to be up early, as she and her teammates were Wednesday, driving toward the Vero Beach rowing club as the sun rose. There were no cameras charting their entrance, like those following Clemson and LSU for Monday night’s college football championship game.


To be a rower, and to be a rower at a school like Holy Cross, is to work in relative anonymity, to be driven by forces that have nothing to do with big-time budgets or scholarship money.

“I think part of the satisfaction of being a rower is that it’s something no one cares about in a way — it’s just you, you and your teammates,” my friend Deirdre McLoughlin explained.

Deirdre and I grew up together in another insular world, the one of Irish dance. She went on to row for Boston University, eventually earning her doctorate in physical therapy there. She practices in California and provides services to the US rowing team, traveling with them to major international competitions, including the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo.

I called Deirdre to better understand the mind of a rower, and as she pulled out of a day’s work at the US rowing training center in Oakland, she did so with Holy Cross and Rett on her mind. It was the talk of the boathouse, stopping the kindred spirits in their tracks, frozen by the empathy of “there but for the grace of God go I.”

“When you meet a rower, on a plane or out to dinner, you already know so much about that person,” Deirdre told me. “You know they’re loyal, dedicated, that they’ll go to bat for you, that they’re going to show up. Because they know, if they don’t show up, the boat doesn’t launch.

“There’s an adage about hiring athletes because they’ll be team players. In rowing, you are needed, you are a piece of the puzzle, needed in a way I didn’t experience in other sports like basketball or softball. There’s a draw in that, and it’s not about ego, that you matter. It’s that everyone matters.

“That’s the feeling I think about for that team, the feeling they’re going to have all year long.”

In a statement, Rett’s family described their daughter as “a warm-hearted, kind and gifted young woman, [who] lived every second of every day with a contagiously positive spirit that enriched the lives of everyone around her.

“Words cannot express how utterly heartbroken we are at the loss of our beloved Grace.”

A Twitter message from a former teacher at Marianapolis underscored those sentiments. “Grace: you were the epitome of unconditional love and empathy, and you made better the lives of all who crossed your path,” Jake Smith wrote Wednesday. “It was the honor of my life to be your teacher, confirmation sponsor, and adviser, and I will miss you terribly.”

Grace Rett made a mark on the world. The world should have given her more time in return. In his stirring 1896 poem “To an Athlete Dying Young,” A.E. Housman writes of the glory in departing before the body is old and forgotten, before records are set and broken:

Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay,

And early though the laurel grows

It withers quicker than the rose.

I disagree. Grace Rett, an athlete so filled with promise, a teammate so dedicated to a sport she loved, a rower to her very core, deserved more time, more time to compete for Holy Cross to the end of her senior year, to be with her teammates through victories and defeats, to travel the roads and traverse the rivers up and down the East Coast. She deserved it all.

That would have made sense.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist.