In the Ford Center at 4 p.m. on March 9, there are no basketball players in the basketball gym. Instead there are 30 to 40 erg machines scattered on the court, and a litany of men’s and women’s rowers warming up on the sidelines.
All of them are wearing gray tank tops emblazoned with the Latin words aeternum fortis: “forever strong.” In part, these athletes are here for their regular training. But today’s usual practice on the rowing machines carries a special weight.
The men’s rowing team is here to compete in Connor’s Erg Challenge for the second straight year. Connor Dawes was a young man from Wisconsin who spent most of his childhood in Australia. He became a talented rower in high school, and dreamed of rowing for Stanford during college. Unfortunately, Connor was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away in 2013 after a surgery, just as he was being recruited by both Stanford and Wisconsin.
In his memory, the Robert Connor Dawes foundation holds a competition between the Stanford and Wisconsin men’s rowing teams to raise money for brain cancer research. The money raised goes directly to the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital right here on campus to support Dr. Michelle Monje’s research into DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma), the type of cancer from which Connor suffered.
The format of the erg challenge is simple: Stanford vs. Wisconsin, and the first team to 100 kilometers wins. A team of five rowers takes to five ergs to quickly row 20 kilometers, and then switches with a second team of five. Stanford and Wisconsin are in their respective home gyms, but connected via video feed in real time. The coaches call each other on the phone and deliver friendly jabs. The women’s team, who have a race on Saturday, cheer on the men as they go through their own workouts. The prize for the winner? Bragging rights and the Connor Cup. The real prize? Over $13,000 raised for cancer research.
The coach of the men’s team, Craig Amerkhanian, was enthusiastic about the event, but realistic about the expected outcome: “We’re gonna lose, because Wisconsin is all ice, all they do is the machines. Last year, they beat us by 4,000 meters. But when we race them on the water … ”
Regardless of the winner, he loves helping out such a great cause. Coach Amerkhanian knew Connor before his passing and supported him in his illness. As he put it, “We would train anyway. This is just spirited training between student athletes for a good cause.”
The rowers were equally enthusiastic about the competition, working their hardest on the machines and giving 110-percent effort. Teammates cheered each other on as they muscled their way to 100 kilometers. And in the end, it accomplished both a solid workout and a great deal of support for cancer research.
As freshman lightweight rower Sarah Taylor put it, “It’s nice to see everyone band together and work towards bringing awareness to pediatric brain cancer.” In the spirit of the event, Sarah and several other members of various athletic teams baked cookies in a residence hall and sold them in White Plaza over the course of the last week, raising $500 for the erg challenge.
In the end, Wisconsin came out on top and claimed the Connor Cup. The Cardinal finished just under one minute behind the the Badgers in an incredible effort. After the competition was over, the looks of exhaustion and camaraderie on the faces of the Cardinal rowers was enough to confirm that the day was a success.
To find out more about the Robert Connor Dawes Foundation or to make a donation, please visit http://rcdfoundation.org/erg-challenge/.
Contact Bobby Pragada at bpragada ‘at’ stanford.edu.