When Max Mannisto and his University of Washington freshmen-eight crew teammates crossed the finish line to win the Temple Cup trophy at the famed Henley Royal Regatta in England on Sunday, they erupted in pandemonium.
"We let out a primal scream and you felt absolutely invincible," said Mannisto, a Belmont resident who graduated from Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City. "It was just a huge rush of adrenaline and it seemed almost unreal."
That's because the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Mannisto was living a dream and then some. Ever since he started rowing in his freshman year of high school, Mannisto always wondered what it would be like to compete in a race at Henley, which is one of the most prestigious and oldest -- the event was first contested in 1839 -- the sport of rowing has to offer.
Washington defeated Amsterdamsche Studenten Roeivereeniging of the Netherlands by a dominating 4 1/2 lengths, finishing the 2,112-meter course in 6 minutes, 58 seconds to become the first Washington freshmen crew team to win the Temple Cup. The Huskies were racing for the fifth time in as many days, one of rowing's most grueling tests.
For Mannisto, the experience was greater than even he imagined. With thousands of spectators lining up alongside the course -- men wore suits and women dresses -- the scene and pageantry of the event created a tremendous setting for the competition. For the most part -- and especially in the U.S. -- rowers compete in anonymity. But the Henley Royal Regatta is an entirely different story.
"Everyone in the rowing world knows about Henley," Mannisto said. "Rowing is not really a spectator sport at all, and to see so many people there watching was unbelievable. It's really unheard of for the sport and weird to have everything set up for you as a rower. The grandness of it was indescribable. When our coach told us we were invited (to compete at Henley), I was like 'Wow, really?' It was mind blowing just thinking about it. This was a race I always hoped just to go to, so to come here and win was a dream come true."
The victory at Henley capped an undefeated season for the Huskies, who also captured the Pacific-10 and Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championships. Along with tennis, rowing is one of the few sports in Division I athletics where there are official contests from the beginning of the school year to the end of the academic calendar.
"It was great we won at Henley, but I'm glad the season is over because we all needed a break," Mannisto said. "Everyone thinks rowing is row, row, row your boat gently down the stream, but there's nothing merry and nothing gentle about rowing."
Like a number of rowing athletes, Mannisto was proactive in the recruiting process. He's currently not on scholarship but was recruited to row at Washington after sending an e-mail to Huskies freshmen coach Luke McGee and a couple of other universities. After reviewing Mannisto's build, fitness test scores and race experience, McGee called Mannisto back in the fall of his senior year and asked him if he was interested in rowing at Washington.
"I told him I didn't know yet, and he said, 'All right, when you know Washington is your No. 1 choice, we'll discuss you getting into the university,'" Mannisto said.
After weighing all his options -- Mannisto also considered Cal, Cornell and Dartmouth -- he called McGee back a couple of months later to say he had picked Washington.
"I couldn't have made a better choice," Mannisto said.
Mannisto's next two goals are to make the junior varsity eight boat for his sophomore year and earn a spot on the U.S. 23-and-under national team next summer. Not only has Mannisto enjoyed tremendous success in the sport, but rowing has given him an added confidence boost.
When Mannisto first took up the sport at age 14, he described himself as being "a fat kid with zero muscle." But it didn't take long for Mannisto to shed some weight and become a lean, mean rowing machine. Mannisto got his start rowing at a beginner's camp at the Bair Island Aquatic Center in Redwood City.
He went on to join the NorCal Crew, a strong club rowing program. Mannisto said rowing was the greatest aspect of his high school years and that he can't wait to see how his burgeoning career unfolds. With all the enjoyment he's received through rowing, Mannisto often reflects on how things got started.
"I think back to the summer when I first got in the boat and had no idea what I was doing," he said. "But from the first moment (of camp), I thought rowing was really cool and I absolutely loved it. I still remember my mom telling me that this (the sport) costs a lot of money, and asking if I was sure if I wanted to stick with this. I told her, 'Yeah, I'll stick with this,' and five years later I'm at one of the best rowing schools in the country."
Emanuel Lee can be reached: firstname.lastname@example.org and (650) 344 5200, ext. 109.