By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — One day she’s at the White House, chatting with the President of the United States. The next, she’s back on Grounds, walking to her classes.
Forgive Sidney Thorsten if she went through Tuesday in a bit of a daze.
“It’s still amost surreal to me that yesterday I was there shaking his hand,” Thorsten said that afternoon.
A member of UVa’s rowing team, Thorsten probably wasn’t the only one who felt that way Tuesday. Student-athletes and coaches from more than 30 teams that won NCAA titles in 2009-10 traveled to D.C. on Monday for a reception that President Obama hosted on the South Lawn.
Two of those teams were from the University — rowing and men’s soccer. They traveled together on a new UVa bus that left Charlottesville around 11:30 a.m. and returned about 10 hours later. The Wahoos, including athletics director Craig Littlepage, toured the U.S. Capitol before heading over to the White House.
“As a coach, when we got to the South Lawn, I’m thinking, ‘What an athletic gene pool we got here,’ ” men’s soccer coach George Gelnovatch said with a laugh. “I was looking around going, ‘Geez, we could convert a few of these people to soccer players, no problem.’ “
Rowing coach Kevin Sauer said: “It was pretty special, to get there and hang out with the other NCAA champions and be recognized and be able to actually see the President. I was three feet from the President of the United States. How often do you get a chance to do that?”
In the early 1990s, Gelnovatch met President Clinton in D.C. during an event at which another men’s soccer team from UVa was honored for winning the NCAA title. Gelnovatch was an assistant on that team; the national championship Virginia won in 2009 was his first as head coach.
Obama delivered an excellent speech that lasted about five minutes, Gelnovatch said. What really impressed the Cavaliers’ coach, however, was what followed.
“President Obama could have just made his speech and shaken a few hands and retreated,” Gelnovatch said. “But for anybody who wanted to shake his hand and look him in the eye, he stayed around to make sure he did that.”
Sauer said: “He pretty much shook hands with everybody. It was pretty cool. He’s very engaging. He asked one of our kids, ‘What sport are you?’ She said, ‘Virginia rowing,’ and he said, ‘Oh, wow, rowing. That’s a tiring sport.’ “
The men’s soccer team won its championship in December. The rowing team was crowned on May 30, long after final exams had ended at UVa.
“It’s like you have the award ceremonies at NCAAs, and then everyone [immediately] goes their separate ways,” said Thorsten, coxswain on the Varsity Eight.
And so the White House reception held special significance for the rowing team, Thorsten said, “because it was really the first time the group that went to NCAAs got together since we won. It was a really fun day.”
Most of the seniors from the championship team made it to Washington, Sauer said, including Inge Janssen, who came from Holland; Nora Phillips and Summers Nelson, who both came from Seattle; and Lauren Hutchins, who came from British Columbia.
The turnout from the 2009 men’s soccer team was strong, too, Gelnovatch said. Among those who joined current Cavaliers in Washington, Gelnovatch said, were former players Tony Tchani, Neil Barlow, Jordan Evans, Ross LaBauex and Chase Neinken.
The freshman rowers stayed behind in Charlottesville. So did the first-year soccer players.
“I think that’s a little cherry that you try to work toward, a pretty cool experience that I think our guys will come back and obviously talk to them about,” Gelnovatch said. “We’re going to work toward doing that again.”
Soccer is a fall sport. The rowers compete in the spring. Still, introductions weren’t necessary when the student-athletes boarded the bus Monday morning. They crossed paths often last winter.
The rowers are “in University Hall a lot in the winter when they can’t get on the water, and we’re in there in the winter a lot,” Gelnovatch said, “and Kevin’s always pretty good about giving us a little space in there.”
Sauer said: “After soccer won in the fall, they were practicing the same time as us a few times this winter. We gave them some space during our practice time, and then a lot of the guys came up to me and said, ‘Coach, thanks a lot for letting us do that.’ I go, ‘Hey, man, we can work together here.’ “
When the rowers broke through and won UVa’s first NCAA championship in that sport, Gelnovatch was among the first to call Sauer with congratulations.
“I saw them in the trenches when the snow banks were three feet high and they couldn’t get on the water and they were in U-Hall and they were working and working and working,” Gelnovatch said. “And I think they saw us as having done it, so it kind of inspired them. It was pretty cool.”
The soccer team “set the tone for us this year,” Sauer said. “They won. They showed us how to do it.”