In taking the reins as the captain of the Princeton University men’s heavyweight crew this past fall, Will Gillis was determined to be there for the program’s younger rowers, on and off the water.
“I wanted to make myself available to the underclassmen; I have a wealth of experience academically and athletically as does the whole senior class and I wanted them to tap into it,” said Gillis, a native of Seattle, Wash. who helped the U.S. men’s 4- take third last summer at the U-23 World Championships in Linz, Austria.
“I think compared to my junior year, lots of underclassmen took the opportunity to talk to me about what they should major in and classes they should take. I have been helping them navigate the academics.”
Last weekend, Gillis helped the Princeton varsity 8 boat take a major step forward on the water as it placed fourth in the grand final at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta at Mercer Lake.
Gillis had the sense that the Tiger 8 would emerge as one of the elite boats in the country.
“I always knew we had the guys and horsepower to be a very good boat,” said Gillis.
“We had a lot of freshmen and sophomores in the mix and it was a matter of taking the talent we have and doing the hard work.”
There were some hard moments this spring as Princeton fell to Harvard and Yale in April competition.
“We raced a number of the top boats in the country in Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, and Navy,” said Gillis.
“The fun part about the college regular season is that it allows for some ups and downs.”
Ending the regular season with a victory over Brown on May 3 had the Tigers on an upswing going into the postseason.
“We harnessed some things in practice and had a big win over Brown,” said Gillis of the triumph which saw Princeton clock a time of 5:31.9 to post 4.4 second win over the Bears and earn the Content Cup. “But it was in the week of practice before Brown that we had a boost.”
Turning those practice habits into more success, the varsity 8 broke through with a third place finish at the Eastern Sprints in mid-May, moving to medal stand after placing fourth the previous two years.
“It’s always big; I told all the guys after the race you only get one opportunity to do this a season,” said Gillis, reflecting on the crew’s bronze medal performance in which it posted a time of 5:32.411 on the 2,000-meter course at Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Mass. with champion Harvard coming in at 5:27.277 and Brown next in 5:28.998.
“It was big to step onto a place on the medal dock, there are not many spots. We left the race thinking that we wanted more for the boat and the program. The boat and the team is on the verge of becoming a strong force in the league.”
Princeton head coach Greg Hughes credits Gillis with being a major force behind the progress the program has shown over the last few years as it rose to fourth in the IRAs.
“Will is one of those guys who is great in and out of the boat,” said Hughes, whose varsity 8 came in at 5:43.715 to take third in the IRA regatta with Washington first in 5:37.113, Brown second in 5:39.626, and California third in 5:42.063.
“He leads by example, through the way he handles things in school and still performs on the water. He steps up in big situations. The experience he has had in that boat and in the summer time, racing for the U-23 team against tough competition and getting a medal, showed up in the tenacity of that boat over the weekend.”
Gillis, for his part, has made sure to savor his final weeks in a Princeton boat.
“After the Sprints, when I crossed the finish line, it hit me that this was over and that I would never be racing here again,” said Gillis, a politics major with a certificate in American Studies who graduated Tuesday and is going on to teach U.S. history to 11th graders at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School which provides a college prep program for low income students.
“I talked to Greg and he said it is amazing how your perspective changes from 10 minutes before the race to 10 minutes after. I was thinking today, I will have to clean out my locker. In other years, it was I’ll be back. I am really enjoying the boat and the guys; they have made the experience amazing.”