Men’s rowing seniors graduate at athletics commencement

Senior men's rowing captain Matthew Coughlin spoke about his first experiences at GW in his speech at athletics commencement. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor
Senior men’s rowing captain Matthew Coughlin spoke about his first experiences at GW in his speech at athletics commencement. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor
Most members of the Class of 2015 won’t get an entire graduation ceremony dedicated to themselves and just two classmates. But for the three seniors on the men’s rowing team, who will be competing at Eastern Sprints while the rest of their class graduates on Sunday, they got to flip their tassels in front of a small crowd in Betts Theater on Tuesday afternoon.

1. An ‘intimate’ ceremony

The tiny event, which Provost Steven Lerman called “much more intimate,” than the rest of GW’s Commencement activities, honored Matthew Coughlin from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, Patrick Lacey from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Scott Yanoff from the GW School of Business.

Though University-wide Commencement on the National Mall will serve more than 6,400 students, University President Steven Knapp told the audience that three was a fitting number for the first graduation ceremony, because it was the same number of graduates at GW’s first-ever Commencement in 1824.

That ceremony was attended by big names like President James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and the Marquis de Lafayette, but Knapp told the friends, family and teammates gathered in the theater that Tuesday’s audience was “in it’s own way, no less grand.”

“In it’s own way,” he added again, perhaps looking around the rows of athletes decked out in shorts and Hawaiian shirts.

2. Final instructions from a coach

Men’s rowing head coach Mark Davis followed up Lerman’s remarks.He thanked his seniors for the “pure joy” of coaching them and watching them go through four years of college.

He reminded them that rowing, a sport which requires near-perfect coordination among boatmates, has taught them to “put aside your ego, to let go and be a part of something bigger,” but closed with a quote about individualism from George Pocock, the famous builder of racing shells.

“It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why, it’s nearing perfection. And when you reach perfection you’re touching the divine. You’re touching the you of yous, which is your soul,” Davis said.

3. A captain’s reflections

Coughlin, the team’s captain, then took the podium and gave his remarks about how his impression of GW had drastically changed from the time of his first recruiting trip to the school.

Coughlin elicited laughs saying that “the image I had of city schools was [New York University] students in Washington Square Park with green hair yelling something about the environment.”

When he got to GW, Coughlin said he was “distracted by the numerous buildings with grim concrete exteriors that scattered campus. I thought, ‘Is this where people go to college or is this the training site for the next generation of bureaucrats?’ Later I learned, it’s actually both.”

But Coughlin said that he eventually got a good feeling from the team, the campus and coach Davis, and that all his first impressions disappeared through four years in Foggy Bottom where he learned his strongest lessons through the “failure” and “hardship” of rowing – a sport that Couhlin noted originated as a form of capital punishment.

He gave his parting words to a group of teammates he called “the most absurd group of people that I’ve ever been a part of.”

“I don’t know where the coaches find you guys but you’ve managed to get some of the biggest characters from every corner of North America, and even the world, on this campus,” Coughlin said.

He urged the team to ignore distractions from their personal lives, school, the weather on the water, disagreements with coaches or fellow rowers and to keep sight of the reasons they chose to row in the first place.

“Just show up, do your best every day and you will not regret it,” Coughlin said.

4. Knapp gives his first charge

After sharing the brief history lesson about GW’s first Commencement, Knapp gave his charge to the graduates.

“You are our future,” Knapp said. “We depend on you to repair what our earlier generations have broken, to build what we have left build, to learn what we have not yet learned, to heal what we have so far left unhealed. And as you go forth to do these things, always know that at the George Washington University, you have a home in the heart of this nation’s capitol. Congratulations, and best wishes to you all.”

Degrees were then conferred upon the three athletes, and Coughlin, Lacey and Yanoff flipped their tassels and took pictures with Knapp and Davis before proceeding out of the theater.

5. Graduates head off with unfinished business

Though the three rowers may now count themselves college graduates, they still have work to do over the upcoming weekend at Eastern Sprints.

The postseason begins for the team on May 17 when they shove off on the waters of Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Mass. against top teams including Northeastern, Harvard, Brown and Navy.

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