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Small Packages, Big Things

Small Packages, Big Things

Howard Runyon


In fall 2016, Su Hae Jang came to Northwood as a ninth-grader. So did Imani Hawman. Su Hae would be known here as Jessica; her home was in Seoul. Imani was from Connecticut. In their first week, both girls signed up for the Crew. They were similar in size--small, by rowing's eccentric standards--and much different in personality. Jessica, already fluent in American English, was talkative and openly curious. Imani was quiet, watchful, a careful chooser of her moments to speak. She was also an alpine ski racer, already connected to the school's ski program. Fall ski training allowed her to row only about every other day, but she learned quickly. Jessica, with no athletic history that we knew of, was there every day, paying the close attention typical of diligent students but showing no impatience for speed. She, too, learned quickly, even for a full-timer. Much faster than most beginners do, both girls became comfortable in the narrow, tricky single scull—"the boat of truth."

One day, at a coach's suggestion, they got into a double scull and went for an exploratory "paddle," an easy row with no hard strokes. They liked it. They had some laughs. They seemed happy sharing that cramped cockpit. The boat went . . . not badly. They wanted to do it again.

They did. And how.

Jessica, the talky one, settled into the role of bow seat, responsible for steering and minding traffic. Imani, the stroke, sat in the stern, focusing on rhythm and tempo. They started to work hard. They started to drill thoughtfully. The boat started to go. Two springs later, as sophomores, they won bronze among scholastic lightweight doubles at the New York State Scholastic Rowing Championships; the spring after that, silver. At least one gray head at Northwood spent the following fall and winter dreaming of alchemy, of converting a baser metal to gold. But as seniors, the girls got no chance to keep that date with destiny. COVID-19 happened.

Still, Imani and Jessica had an excellent run in the lightweight double, and became one of the two best racing crews we've had in my 17 years as coach. By the time they'd gelled in the boat and begun to leave opponents behind, we knew something more about why it was happening: Jessica, though apparently loath to talk about it, was a veteran of a pre-elite kids' short-track speed skating program in South Korea, where short track is a national industry. Was she a recovering athlete, a refugee from competition, who needed to come around again to the racing life at her own pace and on her own terms? This coach likes to think so but never asked her directly until preparing to write this reminiscence. At press time, the reply is pending.

After the girls' silver-medal finish at 2019's States, Northwood's Creative Director, Michael Aldridge, made a lovely video of a special "training" outing on Mirror Lake. Unnaturally for a row at home, they wore their racing suits; otherwise it could have been a normal practice, except that the coach just watched in admiration instead of barking throughout. Click here: