When it was over and the sky above the Schuylkill was suddenly clouded and the air smelled like rain, the members of the St. Joseph's women's heavyweight eight team tucked the silver medals around their necks inside their racing suits so the metal disks wouldn't bang against the boat. Then, in unison, as always, they lifted the sleek white shell from the water, turned it over and walked it steadily into a bay of the team's boathouse.
If it seemed like a practiced routine, something they do every day, that is because it is something they do just about that often. During the crew season, a bus from the athletic department picks them up on campus at 6:15 a.m. on weekdays and they bounce down City Avenue, cross the river, and are on the water by 6:30.
Every Monday is the same, and every Tuesday, and every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. They put in the mileage, building their endurance, lowering their resting heart rates, piling up the experience necessary to compete.
"You have to train through the boredom," coach Gerry Quinlan would tell them.
It isn't a process for the weak-willed, but the sport of crew doesn't attract many of those, anyway. The rewards are mostly internal, the recognition is sporadic and the work is nearly back-breaking, literally.
"I can't imagine myself not rowing," said Liz Sauter, who rows in the stroke seat at the stern of the boat, the cadence of the coxswain in her face, the rest of the team following her lead. "I do it for the discipline . . . for the friends."
Sauter, from Cherry Hill, and two other women from South Jersey - Debbie Bateman from Longport, and Kaitlin Reehill from Egg Harbor - formed the engine at the back end of the boat. Bateman, in the seven seat, races lifeguard boats at Ventnor City in the summer. Reehill, the six seat, started rowing at Holy Spirit High.
Last year, the St. Joseph's women won the Evelyn Bergman trophy at the Dad Vail Regatta, the first gold medal in that event for the Hawks in the three-decade history of the women's heavyweight eight race.
That set a high standard for this season, and the work didn't get easier when Quinlan's team lost two rowers to injuries and the boat got a lot younger. It is a talented group, but one that contains no seniors, four juniors, three sophomores (including coxswain Kristen Bonnici) and two freshmen.
"The previous team was a little more savvy, had a little better race instincts, but this group is a lot stronger. They've been getting race experience and it really started to click in the last few weeks," Quinlan said. "What they really showed was tremendous character, and they work really hard. I was shocked at how hard they attack and get after it."
The lineup that went to the start line yesterday trying for a repeat at the Dad Vail included Colleen Greway in the bow, Meaghan Stanton in the two seat, Alicia Easby-Smith in the three seat, Emma Harmon in the four seat and Kelly McKinley in the five seat.
Through the long season, they rode the bus together on those awful cold mornings, lifted weights together, took yoga for flexibility training, did their cardio work on land - and took full class loads.
"It's hard to put into words," Bateman said. "It's a passion."
Yesterday was the last of the season's 14 events for the Hawks. It was Goodbye Day. For the rest of the school, it was also commencement, and athletic director Don DiJulia was there to conduct a post-race ceremony for the 11 seniors on the men's team who couldn't make it to graduation.
For the women, it was nearly as poignant an ending, even though they will be back next season. It was the last race together for quite a while. For this particular lineup, it was the end.
The competition was obvious. Purdue and Massachusetts, like St. Joseph's, had won their heats and their semifinal races. The Hawks posted a very fast time in their semifinal - the fastest of any of the boats - but that wouldn't help in the final.
"It's nice but it doesn't mean that much," Quinlan said as the time for the final race neared. "You've got to do it on the water. I know this group is relentless. They won't give up."
That turned out to be a necessary quality as the St. Joseph's boat failed to get away from the starting line quickly. They were just a little out of synch and that's all it took to fall behind. Midway through the race, however, the engine kicked in and the Hawks began to pass other boats in quick succession. Ohio State, then Santa Clara and even Massachusetts, until only Purdue was out there ahead of them. And that, unfortunately, is where Purdue stayed through the finish line.
"That's the sign of a good crew," Quinlan said. "They gave the field a head-start and still had a chance to win the race with 500 meters left."
Perhaps it didn't feel that good immediately to the team, though. The women slumped over after they crossed the finish line, partly from exhaustion, partly from coming so close to getting the gold medal again. Their time of 6 minutes, 34.49 seconds was almost six seconds faster than the winning time a year ago, but that didn't help, either.
"You go for the gold," Sauter said. "It's a little heartbreaking if you don't get it, but you go for it. There's nothing wrong with second. It's a young boat. Hopefully, we'll do better next year."
Back at the dock, they slid the boat into its place in the rack and gathered in a circle in the cool, shadowy light of the boathouse, just the nine of them. And there, the medals still tucked away safely, they said goodbye to the season.
Contact columnist Bob Ford