For Will Gillis, competing at the Royal Henley Regatta in 2009 outside of London with the Green Lake Crew club as a high schooler changed the course of his rowing career.
“It is very special; that’s when I decided I wanted to row in college,” said Gillis, a Seattle, Wash. native, reflecting on his Henley experience.
“In 2009, the Princeton lightweights were there, coached by Greg Hughes and Spencer Washburn. I remembered seeing those guys over there and thinking that is what I want to be doing myself someday.”
Gillis would end up coming to Princeton in 2010 and joining the heavyweight program, which was then being coached by Hughes and Washburn.
This summer, Gillis made an impact on the international scene, helping the U.S. men’s 4- take third at the U-23 World Championships in Linz, Austria.
Making it to the medal stand was a special moment for Gillis. “I was really excited,” said Gillis.
“Obviously when you go to these races, you want to win and you are disappointed if you don’t. We put everything we had into that race and got a result that was beyond expectations.”
When Gillis took up rowing, he wasn’t sure what to expect. “I started my freshman year of high school; I had played football before that and I was looking to play something else,” said Gillis.
“I wasn’t completely hooked by rowing right away. The novice team had a lot of different types of people. I looked up to the older guys; I thought that’s what I want to do.”
With his parents having graduated from Princeton in the 1980s, Gillis thought the school was right for him.
“I had always known at some level that I wanted to go to Princeton,” said Gillis.
“Before I left for my freshman year, we were looking through family albums and there I was as a 10-year-old on my dad’s shoulders at a reunion with him wearing some orange and black thing We would go back to visit family and my parents had friends back east. It is what I thought college should be. That being said, I did consider other schools. I let Greg and Spencer know that Princeton was my first choice and that I was committed to the team.”
Upon joining the program in the fall of 2010, Gillis quickly realized that college rowing required an intense commitment.
“It was the same sport as high school but it was at such a higher level, it seemed different,” said Gillis.
“The level of intensity and focus expected on a daily basis was way beyond that of high school. And then you are thrown in with a different group of guys, some of whom are 22 years old, you had to adjust to that. There are also the typical college things, being so far away from home, a different type of academic load.”
While freshmen can now row on varsity due to rule changes, Gillis thrived under the former model where the newcomers were segregated from their older teammates.
“We had a really good freshman boat,” said Gillis. “We went 8-1, we were second at Eastern Sprints and fourth at the IRAs [the Intercollegiate Rowing Association national championships]. The experience was really enjoyable.”
As a sophomore, Gillis moved quickly into the first varsity 8 and came under the influence of senior captain Ian Silveira.
“Greg paired me up with Ian; we rowed as a pair in the fall,” said Gillis.
“Ian is an intense guy, he is all business. He forced me to perform at a higher level very quickly. I moved up with the boat. It was a transition year. We took some bumps. We were fourth at the Eastern Sprints with a boat that wasn’t as talented as the boat that finished fourth this year. It was a learning experience.”
That summer, Gillis got his first experience with the U.S. national program as he competed in the men’s 4- at the U-23 World Championships in Trakai, Lithuania and helped the boat take fourth.
“I was invited to the sweep selection camp up in Seattle; I got to live at my house,” said Gillis.
“My cox for two years. Keanan Clarke, and Ian lived at my house. That was a lot of fun. I was picked for the coxless 4. We had no idea what we were getting into.”
While Gillis would have liked to come away with a medal, he grew as a rower from his first taste of international competition.
“We raced really well to get fourth,” said Gillis. “We were third with 150 meters to go and Great Britain passed us. That was disappointing but it was a great experience. I had to learn to row in a different kind of boat. It has the speed of an eight and the instability of a pair. It helped my technique and improved me as an oarsman. At that level of rowing, everyone is putting on a uniform with a flag on it. There is a lot on the line; there is a lot of pressure and high-level competition. It was good for my confidence but since we missed out on a medal, I was not fully satisfied.”
Returning to Princeton for his junior season, Gillis applied the lessons he learned from the U-23 worlds to make more of an impact on the program.
“My experience in the summer enabled me to step into more of a leadership role,” said Gillis, who helped the varsity 8 make the grand final at both the Eastern Sprints and the IRAs.
“I was one of the guys in the boathouse who knows what high level competition was about and that helped. Every year I have been at the boathouse, the resolve and the focus of guys has continued to increase. I think it took the biggest jump from my sophomore to junior year. There are a lot of guys committed to hard work. I think we are at the point where we are very good and we are on the verge of being excellent.”
Gillis‘ hard work paid off this summer as he again made the U.S. men’s 4- for the U-23 Worlds.
“I was the only returner on the 4; I had a bit of a sense of how international races play out and how they are different from American college races and what we should expect,” said Gillis.
“It was a fun progression. In the 2½ weeks before we left, we were making progress everyday. Once we got to Austria, we did a good job of building for our best effort.”
The boat came up with a superb effort in the final, clocking a 6:03.86 over the 2,000-meter course to take bronze with Romania winning in a time of 5:58.72 and Australia next at 6:01.18.
“We had some good points on our heat but we had to race the repechage (second-chance race),” said Gillis, whose Princeton teammate, Tim Masters, helped the Australia boat earn silver.
“We had a better race in the rep and made it to final. In the final, we put all of the pieces together. We put forth our best effort when it mattered most. We were in lane 6 and Italy, which took fourth was in lane one. Our 2 seat said we are going to get a medal. We had a length and they weren’t going to get through us. All four of us put our heads down and made it happen.”
With his senior year starting in weeks, Gillis will be shouldering extra responsibility to make big things happen for the Tigers as a team captain for the heavyweights.
“I am excited to get into that role,” asserted Gillis. “I think we are in a spot where we could do some special things. I am excited to be in a leading role to make that happen. It is not just going to happen, though. It is a project of helping the team take it to the next level.”