Mud and rain don’t deter crowd for repositioned Stotesbury regatta

Pennsauken's Cooper River stands in for rain-swollen Schuylkill as rowers from 200 high schools compete.

Nearly 6,000 student athletes from the U.S. and Canada usually descend on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River this time of year for the world’s largest high school regatta, the Stotesbury Cup.

But organizers have moved it to the Cooper River in New Jersey at the last minute because of high, fast water in Philadelphia brought on by days and days of rain.

Margaret Meigs, director of strategic partnerships and public engagement for regatta organizer Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia, said if the event weren’t relocated, students from 200 high schools would have gone home disappointed.

“The Schuylkill is currently unrowable,” Meigs said. “And our primary aim through all of this was, first, the safety of the athletes. And second, that they had the opportunity to engage in fair competition.”

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The two-day event has changed venues just one other time in its 92-year history when it moved to St. Andrew’s School in Delaware more than 30 years ago.

Friday, the banks of the Cooper River were filled with hundreds of tents as spectators slogged through mud and rain to cheer on their teams.

Tim Cullen, head rowing coach at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., said he grew up rowing on the Schuylkill, and he knows how it can swell with rain.

“I know that the Cooper can handle more rain than the Schuylkill, and so I was relieved,” he said. “I thought we’d get better conditions here.”

“We got out for a couple of practice rows [Thursday], and the conditions were fantastic, very flat water, not much current. It’s as good as we could have asked for,” Cullen said.

St. John’s senior Aidan McLoughlin said he was initially skeptical of the new location.

“I was kind of fearing for the regatta as a whole, whether or not it’s going to continue going on,” he said. “So when I first heard about [the move], I definitely thought that this was a harbinger of the end.”

The 18-year-old’s fears were allayed after practicing on the Cooper.

“It’s so flat, especially compared to the Schuylkill and the Potomac where we row, and it calmed all my fears when we went out for a practice row,” McLoughlin said.

St. John’s parent Kathy Isola has been attending these competitions for more than a decade, and she said a little bit of panic set in when she first heard about the move in a short time frame.

“They did an awesome job,” she said. “I think they worked very hard. It went very smoothly from our end. We got here yesterday, and most of the stuff was already set up and ready to go.”

About 300 volunteers made the move happen over 48 hours, along with the Jamie Stack, executive director of the Camden County Boathouse.

Stack noted the Stotesbury is the largest event the Cooper has staged.

“At first it was a little bit like, ‘OK, guess we’re going across the river,’ ” said Charlotte “Coach Mo” Petty, freshmen girls coach at James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia “But then having seen the Schuylkill flooded before, I think they made the right call. I think this is definitely the safest safest option, and we still get to race.”

It was the first Stotesbury experience for James Madison freshman Ella Kavitz.

“So I didn’t really know what to expect, but I know that this is where they have nationals,” the 14-year-old said. “It was a little scary at first because everyone else seemed kind of panicky, but it seems nice. This is all I know.”

And she said she was enjoying the experience of being around nearly 200 high school teams competing in 31 championship events.

After trials and semi-finals Friday, finals are set for Saturday.

Stotesbury Cup officials plan to return the event to its Philadelphia home next year — weather permitting.

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