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former assistant coach at Harvard University

Andreas Simoni and Andrew Smith row in double scull for the Port Jefferson Rowing Club. Photo courtesy Mary Smith

By  Sabrina Artusa

The Port Jefferson Rowing Club sent four boats to the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships, where all four boats competed in the top heat.

Teammates Andrew Smith, 18, and Andreas Simoni, 18, rowed especially well in their double scull, consistently ranking at the top of their heat in the time trial on June 6 and the semifinals on June 7.

Both athletes began rowing competitively around a year earlier in the Port Jefferson Rowing Club, a nonprofit aimed at bringing novices into the sport.

The pair kicked off the competition by placing second in the time trial, completing 2,000 meters in 6:25.52 — 25 milliseconds behind first place and more than five seconds ahead of the next boat.

In the time trial, the boats don’t line up and begin at the same time as they do in the semifinals and finals, but start intermittently. Each boat gets what Smith compared to a “running start”: after leisurely rowing along, the boat is signaled to begin racing after passing a certain point.

As a result, Smith and Simoni were unaware of how they performed compared to the 23 other boats. When they realized how they fared next to other state champions across the country, they were ecstatic.

“It felt amazing. It was so awesome,” Smith said of the moment when, after returning to the dock, they overheard their neighbors say a team called the Port Jefferson Rowing Club got second place. “You just do your best and hope that you made it,” he added.

In the semifinals the next day, the pair maintained their top-notch performance, ranking first in their heat of eight with a time of 6:48.64.

On Sunday, the day of the final competition where Smith and Simoni were set to compete in Final A, the pair encountered a mishap that, unfortunately, cost them a medal.

At the beginning of the race, Smith slid off his seat, and both rowers had to stop rowing until he was resituated. The incident was attributed to an equipment mishap.

“I was just proud that I made it there and of the times. The times showed that we would have done much better if not for the equipment failure. We possibly would have gotten first or second,” Smith said. “I was just proud that my boat made it to nationals. It was very stiff competition.”

At five years old, the Port Jefferson Rowing Club is relatively new compared to clubs in other states where rowing is more popular. Despite this, the team has achieved success under their three coaches: James Finke, former assistant coach at Harvard University; Jarek Szymczyk, who coached single men’s sculls at the Rio Olympics; and Anna MacDonald, a coach at Stony Brook School.

“We definitely train hard,” said Finke, founder of the club. “We balance between training hard and having a lot of fun.”

“Here, our mission is to make rowing more visible and more attractive to these athletes,” he said.

The club may be intended to attract novices to the sport, but Finke believes that what his team lacks in experience, they make up for in technique.

“Our main philosophy on coaching is making sure our kids have superior technique on the strokes.”

Simoni, who has committed to rowing at the University of California, Berkeley, and Smith began rowing together a couple of months ago after achieving similar times in a singles competition.

“When we got in the boat together, everything clicked and everything felt very good. We just fell into sync and just rowed,” Smith said.

Hugh Macdonald, another member of the club, ranked well in the competition. He scored second in the under-17 singles race but caught a fever before the final, according to Finke. Macdonald raced in the final despite feeling unwell and ranked seventh.

The girls in the under-15 quad race, Sylas MacDonal, Honora Riley, Olivia Timmons, Tatiana Garrison, and Zihe Zhou, also finished fourth.