ST. CATHARINES, Ont. – On the day LeBron James and Kevin Durant – the two best players in the NBA, rivals during the regular season – won Olympic gold together as teammates, Buffalo saw two of its own impressive young rivals join forces to win gold at the 130th Royal Canadian Henley Regatta.
Different sport, different level, same philosophy.
Will Downing and Tom Evangelista had always competed against each other before this summer. When Downing was at Canisius High School, he squared off with Evangelista’s St. Joe’s crew. The two still compete in college at rival Ivy League schools; Downing is a sophomore at Princeton and Evangelista a junior at Cornell.
This summer, though, they wanted to finally win gold at the regatta. They knew they’d have their best shot by coming together.
Their goal became a reality on Sunday as they won the Under-23 Lightweight Men’s Pair final in 7:02.7. The crew pulled away from Calgary Rowing Club, the same boat it narrowly defeated in the qualifying heat (by .62 seconds), to win the gold medal by 2.88 seconds.
West Side Rowing Club’s pair left no doubt, leading the final from start to finish.
The Henley only gives medals to first-place finishers and Downing had four second-place finishes at the event in his career.
“I put some added pressure on myself to finally take this one home,” Downing said. “We came together as a pair and everything went pretty smooth from Day One.”
Neither of the athletes had ever competed in a two-man boat before.
“We thought we’d come together this summer,” Evangelista said. “We were both in the club, both available.”
Downing and Evangelista won the only gold medal for Buffalo’s two rowing clubs – West Side and the Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association. West Side’s U-17 women’s four boat yielded Western New York’s next-best finish, in fourth place.
This year marks West Side’s 100th anniversary, and the two rowers said they agreed before the final race that winning gold would be a fitting gift to give the club for which they’d rowed since they were freshmen in high school.
“We were both decent rowers in high school, but we progressed a lot in our college careers and went way beyond where we were,” Downing said. “We’re skilled enough now where we can adapt to each other.”
Just how did they jell so fast?
“We’ve been working every day,” Evangelista said. “We haven’t been in the boat super long, but we’ve improved every time we got in.”
The third-place team, Montreal Rowing Club, finished 8.04 seconds behind Downing and Evangelista, who didn’t want to leave any room for error. For them, it was gold medal or bust.
“Finally coming out of this Henley with a medal, that’s the best part,” Evangelista said.
This year’s regatta featured some of the world’s best competition, as rowers came from 10 countries. Asked if that makes their gold medal sweeter, Downing and Evangelista responded in unison: “Absolutely.”
Nichols School’s Eva Schlehr was a part of the St. Catharine’s Rowing Club U-17 women’s eight team that finished third on Thursday. Schlehr will be a junior this year.