NEW YORK -– On a night when Blake Haxton shared the stage with Gevvie Stone as USRowing’s Male and Female Athlete of the Year, he couldn’t help but recall four years earlier, when he watched Stone compete at the London 2012 Olympic Games on TV and become one of the driving forces inspiring his unlikely path back to the sport.
“I didn’t know if I was going to ever row again,” said Haxton, a 2016 Paralympian who lost both of his legs after high school from a flesh-eating disease. “So to be up on stage with Gevvie, it’s truly unreal. If you told me four years ago that I would get to share a stage with Gevvie Stone, I would have laughed you out of the building. It’s a huge honor.”
The laughing was of a pure joy nature on Thursday night at the New York Athletic Club near Central Park, where USRowing held its annual Golden Oars awards dinner. Haxton, fourth at the Rio Paralympics, and Stone, a silver medalist in the women’s singles sculls at this summer’s Olympics, were the headliners, while a handful of other awards and honors were handed out.
“It’s a great get together,” said women’s open weight coach Tom Terhaar. “It brings all the groups together. We get to celebrate rowing on all different levels.”
While they weren’t bestowed any particular award, the women’s eight crew from Rio were fan and red carpet favorites, taking photos and meeting well-wishers having won a third consecutive Olympic gold for Team USA in the event in Rio, which was also their 11th consecutive global title.
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“It was an amazing opportunity that we were given, and being able to capitalize on it is something we’re really proud of,” said veteran Meghan Musnicki, who won gold in London, as well. “Rio was a great experience. Coming away with a gold medal didn’t hurt, either.”
Haxton, who recently finished at Ohio State law school and now works as an investment analyst, is the first Paralympian to be named male athlete of the year by USRowing. When he learned he had received the honor via a voicemail while at work about a month ago, he tried to figure out which of his friends was trying to punk him.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Haxton, who is based in Columbus, Ohio. “I texted my coach saying, ‘I think this happened… but I’m not quite sure.’”
Haxton says the award makes up for the fact that he finished fourth in Rio (“fourth place is not why you compete,” he said wryly) and that he’s set to train to try and qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics in four years.
“It’s such an honor,” Haxton said of the award. “It’s not a place I ever thought I would be. I really can’t put it into words. It’s a mountaintop experience.”
Haxton’s win was something that didn’t surprise Stone, however.
“He is just a can-do guy,” she said. “First to go through what he did… I think a lot of people wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. For him to be where he is, he’s an amazing athlete. Mentally, it’s another level. He’s always the most cheerful person in the room, too. I respect him so much.”
Life has been busy for everyone since Rio – showing off their hardware, visiting local schools, participating in corporate panels and seminars – but perhaps no one as much as Stone, who relies on her Google calendar to tell her what is coming up next.
As of now, she’s in the midst of interviewing for medical residency programs on the East Coast for emergency medicine. She’ll find out where she is placed in March and then begin in June.
Her favorite part of her post-Rio life is the joy that just touching an Olympic silver medal gives to young kids, who she tries to schedule into her life as often as possible.
“The most fun thing has been sharing the experience with kids,” she said, smiling. “They are just so optimistic. That’s where we can make our impact as athletes. I think anyone likes to hear our story, but kids are the ones that really soak it all in. Every time you share it with someone else, it also brings back the thrill and memory of winning it.”(L-R) Women's eight rowers Katelin Snyder, Amanda Elmore, Eleanor Logan, Meghan Musnicki, Tessa Gobbo, Amanda Polk, Kerry Simmonds and Emily Regan pose at USRowing's Golden Oars awards dinner on Nov. 17, 2016 in New York City.
It’s a thrill that hasn’t gotten old for the U.S. women’s eight – which is actually nine if you count the coxswain, who instructs and motivates the team in the boat – even as it added to the dynasty Team USA has built in the discipline over the past decade.
“It feels like a sisterhood,” said Eleanor Logan, who now has gold medals from 2008, 2012 and 2016. “What’s fun about this eight is that we’re all so completely different. We’re in the same boat, but we might not be around each other otherwise. The only thing we share in common is our work ethic and our desire to be the best that we can be as competitors. We respect each other so much.”
Katelin Snyder, the coxswain in Rio, had recently listened back to the audio from the gold-medal race this summer, hearing her own words as the U.S. went from third midway through the regatta to winning Olympic gold at the finish line.
“I had a tear come to my eye, for sure,” said Snyder. “I sent it to the rest of our boat. We all kind of had our moment in reflecting in our own way. Everyone was appreciative of it and the memories it brought about.”
Snyder has been busy too: She gets married next month to fellow Olympic rower Nareg Guregian, having spent the last few weeks on a road trip with her husband-to-be, catching up with friends and family. Logan, meanwhile, moved to be with her husband in the Seattle area, and Musnicki moved from Princeton, New Jersey, where USRowing is based, back to upstate New York, where she is from.
For the eight, there is a group text in which they trade laughs, or – in Snyder’s case – a moment from Rio. They are bonded for life.
“It’s almost like family: You don’t see each other for a while but then when you do, you just pick right back up,” Snyder said. “It’s really special. We have seen each other at our worst, and we still respect and love one another even though we know the worst parts of each other. That is the kind of friendship you don’t really have with anyone else.”
Musnicki said none of the U.S. team ever doubted their ability to win in Rio, even as they were behind midway through the race.
“We try to stay really internal as a boat,” she said. “There wasn’t a moment where I was like, ‘Wait, we might not win.’ I just wanted to continue to push and see what we would get out of it.”
It got them gold, and – as coach Terhaar noted – even though it was expected, that didn’t make it any less satisfying.
“You always want to have good, confident athletes,” he said. “It was us looking at them saying, ‘How fast can you go?’ … It was pretty amazing. Everyone assumed it was going to happen, but it was a pretty tough regatta, tough race. Things don’t always go to plan when you go to the Olympics, but they handled it well. It was well-earned.”
And well-earned for honorees Haxton and Stone on this night in New York, who at one point posed for photos together, gripping their plaques. They each trained for Rio almost solo, pushing themselves day in and day out for greatness. Thursday night that was recognized.
“I’m speechless,” Haxton said.
“It’s an incredible honor to be recognized by your team,” added Stone. “We all put in an insane amount of work to get to Rio. … For them to appreciate and recognize that even though I wasn’t in the camp system, I was still putting in the same miles, the same goals, working my butt off too – that meant a lot.”