Never would you expect someone to go overboard, especially not in the biggest race of the year. Rowers are told to never leave their boats, but for Lehigh freshman rower Maddie Wescott, instinct took over during her senior year of high school at Mount Saint Joseph Academy.
During last May's SRAA national championships, Wescott was rowing in her team's Second Varsity Eight. Her best friend Rachel was in the bow seat while Maddie was in the seventh seat, the opposite end of the boat.
"We probably shouldn't have raced that day. The conditions were really bad," Wescott said. "They canceled all the races for the smaller boats [fours, singles, etc.]. The water was so choppy and so windy. We were going into our sprint and Rachel caught a crab."
A crab is a rowing term when your oar gets stuck under the water because you don't take the blade of the oar out cleanly. It's just stuck and you are thrown backwards unless you take the blade out in time.
"It was really windy and we were exhausted, so she wasn't able to tap out and the oar dragged her into the water," Wescott said. "She was torn from the boat. I thought we'd hit a buoy. You're in race mode so you have no perception of what's going on around you. Your goal is to get to the finish line.
"I was ready to bite my coxswain's head off because I was thinking she should be on her A game today," Maddie continued. "Then I turn and my best friend is in the water. Instinct just kicked in."
Also an experienced lifeguard, Wescott didn't hesitate to jump in and help.
"The first thing I thought was to dive out and try to rescue her," Westcott said. "She was clearly panicked and she is not the strongest swimmer. She still says to this day that she was drowning. When you're exhausted and concussed -- we hit her with two or three oars going full pressure -- it's easy to become completely flustered and disoriented.
"Going from racing and being exhausted, you're being thrown into the water. It was freezing too."
"Rowers are taught to always stay with the boat even if the boat flips, but having a teammate and best friend be ejected out of the boat is a rare occurrence," Lehigh head coach Brian Conley said. "Maddie knew her friend was not a strong swimmer. I'm proud we have a person of action on our team. I think it says a lot about Maddie and her character that she trusted her training as a lifeguard and saved her best friend."
"I remember diving in and it took my breath away because it was so cold," Wescott said. "It happened so fast, I wasn't even thinking. I got to her the same time the launch [officials] got to her. No one in the launch is qualified or would have been able to save her, because they were older officials, older men who wouldn't have been jumping into the river to get her. Rachel said if she had gone unconscious, who knows what would have happened."
Wescott's example shows the value of always being prepared for anything.
"We always put the team through a safety class when they first arrive at the boathouse," Conley said. "Everything in rowing is designed as a floatation device from the hull, which will never truly sink, to the oars being a personal flotation device as well. It's something every rower and coxswain is taught."
Wescott's selfless actions prove her character and thinking of others before herself. That selflessness has shone through at Lehigh. On the water, Maddie has impressed early in her collegiate career. She has been a mainstay in the women's second varsity eight.
"Maddie has been brought great energy to the team," Conley said. "She rises to every occasion and is a true competitor. She holds herself to a high standard in all that she does. For example, we were doing a wall sit exercise for the first time early this fall and Maddie dropped out early. She apologized to her team for letting them down and the next time, she lasted more than double the amount of time."
Wescott is in the Engineering school and was recruited by the Mountain Hawks.
"I came here knowing I would row," Westcott said. "I really liked the Lehigh rowing program because it's building. It's really exciting. I think we're going to be really good the next few years. I came from a pretty competitive high school program, so not having rowing in my life was not really an option in college. Lehigh seemed like a good fit."