St. Mary celebrates 30 years of rowing success

It’s been a great ride for St. Mary’s Michael Gravina and Kevin Monaco. They’ve been on a fun-filled water journey that has lasted for decades and shows no signs of ending.

Currently the principal at St. Mary Catholic Secondary School, Gravina was a member of the West Hamilton school’s first-ever rowing team in 1974. Years have passed but his love for the CREWsader program remains unsinkable.

Current and former principals of St. Mary Catholic Secondary School are pictured with Our Principal’s Pride - Michael Gravina (left) Mary Cipolla, Nat Gallo, Emidio Piccioni and Terry O’Sullivan.  (Photo: Gerry Graham/HWCDSB)

Current and former principals of St. Mary Catholic Secondary School are pictured with Our Principal’s Pride – Michael Gravina (left) Mary Cipolla, Nat Gallo, Emidio Piccioni and Terry O’Sullivan. (Photo: Gerry Graham/HWCDSB)

And you might say that Monaco, now vice-principal at St. Jean de Brebeuf Catholic Secondary School, is in the same boat. He, too, began rowing at St. Mary. Eventually, he became a driving force in creating one of the most outstanding high school rowing teams in Canada during his stint as a teacher/coach at St. Mary from 1996-2008.

Gravina and Monaco were both on hand at the school Sept. 28 for a special anniversary dinner which celebrated both St. Mary’s rich rowing history – 30 consecutive years of rowing — and its exciting future in the sport.

In addition, five rowing shells were brought into the building and christened. Those boats were co-purchased 50/50 by the Leander Boat Club and St. Mary. They’ve been named Terry O’Sullivan (St. Mary’s first-ever rowing coach), Our Principal’s Pride, Friends of Fortinos Main West, Jenny Hogsden, and Joe Stankevicius Jr.

Officials during the ceremony also paid tribute to past administrators, sponsors, supporters and some of the Crusaders’ all-time rowing greats (Jenny Hogsden-Robinson and Joe Stankevicius Jr.)

“My involvement dates back to 1992,” said Monaco, who served as emcee for the anniversary banquet. “Since that time, I have held every seat possible in this program from coxswain to a sweep and sculling oarsman to coach, head coach, fundraiser and bottle washer.”

After leaving St. Mary, Monaco continued to act as a rowing mentor to Crusaders’ coaches. Currently, he’s first vice-president and president-elect of the Canadian Secondary Schools Rowing Association. “So much of my being and the person I have become is so intimately linked to the program and the school,” Monaco said.

Gravina, who transferred to St. Mary from Cardinal Newman, said: “During the last couple of years as principal I have been helping out with two other teacher facilitators, Andy Hanta and Joe Traszik. But the real coaches who spend countless hours with our students are some of our past alumni rowers who returned to coach. They are Greg Hanta, Carolyn Chong, David Bowman, Christina Foden, and Nikki Morrison.”

Rowing, of course, is not a glamorous high school sport. Practices often begin before sunrise. Indoor championships with rowing machines are gruelling affairs.

The St. Mary rowing program actually began ‘by accident’ in 1986. That year a Queen’s University trailer rolled over on the 401 Highway after a regatta and it gave former Hamilton-Wentworth Separate School Board Chairman Dr. James Morreale an idea.

“The late great visionary ‘Doc’ Morreale (a former Leander president and a coach for 13 years at St. Mary) thought ‘let’s buy up a few of these destroyed boats, have them repaired and use them to teach high school students how to row.’” Monaco said.

“It gave us three boats. And in those boats, hundreds, if not close to a thousand, students at St. Mary, Cathedral and Bishop Tonnos would learn to row.”

Monaco praised the support of St. Mary principals over the years for enabling the school’s rowing to thrive. In addition to Gravina, St. Mary principals since 1986 have been Jack Curtis (deceased), Chris Fox, O’Sullivan, Nat Gallo, Mary Cipolla and Emidio Piccioni.

Said Monaco: “Without their belief that this sport offers young people the ability to be part of something great and learn the life lessons of teamwork, perseverance, dedication and hard work, they could have at any moment sunk this program.”

(Photo: Gerry Graham/HWCDSB)

(Photo: Gerry Graham/HWCDSB)

It is estimated that since 1986 more than 600 dedicated athletes have experienced what Crusaders rowing is all about.

“Graduates have gone to win multiple world championships, represent Canada at the Olympics, receive top honours as Queen’s Female Athlete of the Year and receive scholarships to the University of Louisville and Boston University to name but a few,” Monaco said.

“And although at times all athletes are driven by the shear intensity to win and succeed, our rowing program has never lost sight of the fact that this sport more than any other, creates friendships, memories, and a sense of belonging to something greater than ones’ self. If these important facts are overlooked for the benefit of winning a race, a vital part of our sport is lost. This is what this sport instills in its athletes.”

According to Monaco, the four Four shells purchased cost about $20,000 each and the price of the Double was $14,000. Funds were raised through Row-a-Thons dating back to 2000. Some of the boats were purchased in 2002 but not christened until now.

St. Mary has priority use over its co-owned boats during the high school racing season. Other high schools are open to use the boats, but only if the Crusaders aren’t racing that type of shell at regattas.

“The future of this program will rest as it always has on the shoulders of its alumni to return, grow and coach,” Monaco said.

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