A few weeks before he passed away last January, Henry Zietlow ’22 rowed a marathon all by himself. An ergathon, or erg marathon, entails completing a marathon distance (26.2 miles or 42,000 meters) on an indoor rowing machine called an erg. The feat is usually accomplished in teams of three or four, with rowers splitting the distance into intervals. Zietlow did it alone in just 3:33:27.
On Sunday, Bowdoin students gathered in David Saul Smith Union for another ergathon, this time in memory of their lost teammate and friend. Over 100 students attended the first annual Henry Zietlow Memorial Ergathon, inaugurating a tradition meant to honor the values Zietlow lived: hard work, endurance and community.
Matt Donnelly ’22, a member of the rowing team, said that he has thought about his former teammate every moment he has been on the water this year.
“Henry was kind of a magical friend. He meant the world to me and the whole team. I mean, he was only with us for a semester on the team, but it feels like … so much more,” said Donnelly. “The impact he made in one semester, it’s going to last forever. And every stroke we take during this season and in the seasons to come, they’re all for him.”
Athletes from four varsity teams as well as non-athletes from different parts of the Bowdoin community spent over three hours cheering each other on as they erged on the Smith Union floor. The crowd waited until the very last team finished their marathon distance, keeping the energy high and music blasting for hours. As the event ended, it was equal parts tears and smiles, with hugs and high-fives all around.
Doug Welling, the head coach of both the men’s and women’s crew teams and the main organizer of the event, said that Zietlow represented everything he hoped to instill in his rowers.
“The word ‘culture’ gets used a ton in athletics, and I think the qualities that Henry possessed, were all the things, as coaches, that represent our core values,” he said. “If everyone could be their best version of Henry, or themselves, and highlight those values that Henry lived, then you’re doing well.”
First-year rower Jay Sayler showed up with his team, excited for the physical challenge and for the opportunity to honor Zietlow’s memory. Sayler never knew Zietlow, but he said he felt inspired to participate in the event because of how his team has kept Zietlow’s impact alive.
“I can tell how much he moved the team. You see, like, 100 people here today because of the impact that he managed to have at the school in one semester,” said Sayler.
Sayler said this was an example of Zietlow’s enduring legacy on the crew team—a legacy that continues to thrive.
“I don’t think a rowing practice goes by that I don’t think of him or hear his name mentioned, even though until just now when I saw [the tribute video], I didn’t even know what he looked like,” said Sayler.
The event was also dedicated to Grace Rett, a sophomore and fellow rower at the College of the Holy Cross, who tragically passed away in January on a team trip to Florida when a team minivan collided with a pickup truck. Several other rowers on the Massachusetts college’s team were injured.
Rett died almost exactly a year after Zietlow, and their deaths brought the already close-knit New England rowing community together in grief. But, Welling argued, the tragedies have shown the strength of that community.
“Support in the rowing community just aches when anyone goes through any kind of parallel experience [to what happened with Zietlow],” said Welling.
Purple headbands were distributed at the event as a nod to both Zietlow’s habit of wearing them during every race, as well as the school colors of the College of the Holy Cross.
Stephen Boe ’22, who rowed with Zietlow last fall, choked up seeing how many of his classmates had shown up to honor Zietlow’s memory.
“Henry was such an integral part of our team. As a [first year], he was already a leader,” said Boe. “He has often been described as a bright light [in our community]. My metaphor is that he was a lighthouse … a shining beacon on our team.”