Pieter Quinton was looking forward to the final season of his collegiate rowing career, with years of hard work leading to a spot on the top varsity-eight boat for one of the nation’s premier programs.
That it would happen a year later than planned and at a new university — Washington instead of Harvard — is nothing anyone could have foreseen.
But COVID-19 changed so many plans, and Quinton, who grew up in Portland, has been competing in the Huskies’ top boat heading into Saturday’s season-opening race: the annual Class Day Regatta on the Montlake Cut.
“I feel very fortunate and thankful,” said Quinton, who graduated last spring from Harvard with a degree in government and a secondary degree in economics. “When I think of all the collegiate rowing programs in the country, this is probably one of the most active in terms of what we are able to do in training. And the guys on the team here have been terrific. They have all been so welcoming, and have integrated me into the squad.”
Quinton’s father played soccer at Dartmouth and his mother was a rower for Yale. Pieter grew up playing soccer, but things began to change during the summer before his eighth-grade year and his mother thought he wasn’t busy enough and signed him up for a rowing course at Rose City Rowing Club.
A couple of years later, he gave up soccer for good.
“I realized I couldn’t balance the two any longer, and I made the decision to walk away from soccer,” said Pieter, whose brother, Philip, plays soccer at Notre Dame. “My heart really wasn’t into soccer anymore — and I focused full time on rowing.”
He looked at several Ivy League schools, including Yale, but “Harvard clicked with me more.”
Quinton rowed on the second varsity-eight boat in most competitions as a freshman, but in his sophomore year, he dropped to the fourth boat.
“There were definitely some ups and downs,” he said. “I think I had a pretty successful freshman year, and then I stumbled my sophomore year. Honestly, for me, I think it was a good thing (being dropped to the fourth boat). I was lacking the confidence that I had in high school to be a leader of the team. Kind of landing at the bottom allowed me to build myself back up.”
By the end of his sophomore year, he was back in the third boat. He was on the team’s second boat as a junior, doing so well that he was named second-team All-Ivy League. In his first competition as a senior, in the Head of the Charles in October 2019, he was in the second seat of Harvard’s first boat.
A few months later, COVID-19 hit, and the spring season was canceled. That meant the end of rowing at Harvard for Quinton, because there is an Ivy League rule not allowing graduate students to compete in intercollegiate athletics.
“I don’t think I’ll truly get over that,” Quinton said of having his senior season at Harvard canceled. “It was always a dream of mine to compete in spring races — the ones that really matter — with the (top boat), and not being able to do that after it took so long to get there is always going to be heartbreaking, and it’s going to stick with me forever.”
Quinton said he knew he wanted to keep rowing, but said the first couple of weeks after the season was canceled was a “mourning period.” After “picking myself back up,” he contacted Washington assistant rowing coach Sergio Espinoza, who was the intern coach of the junior national team Quinton had competed on in 2016.
Quinton was drawn by the UW program’s success, the fact it was close to his hometown, and also UW’s graduate program in public policy and governance.
It was an easy sell to UW coach Michael Callahan, who had recruited Quinton when he was in high school, and kept track of him through his time at Harvard.
“When a guy decides to go to Harvard, it happens,” Callahan said. “It’s a great institution and a great rowing program. We want to recruit the best guys in the region, and he was a little bit of a loss (when Quinton went to Harvard). When he popped up again — it was, ‘Oh yeah, absolutely, let’s talk to him.’ … The dean of public policy began recruiting him also.
“He kind of landed in our lap.”
Callahan said Quinton has been racing in the No. 7 seat and the bow seat of the varsity boat and is one of the four core members of the varsity-eight boat. He said the fact that Quinton had to work years to make it to the top boat helped make him a good fit for the Huskies.
“I think he is stronger than he has ever been and I think he’s fitting in really well,” said Callahan, who said Quinton has exceeded his expectations, which were high to begin with.
Quinton is living with several UW teammates. Callahan commended Quinton for integrating so well with the team, but also praised the other members of the team, including those competing with Quinton for a spot on the top boat, for being so welcoming.
“He has fit in seamlessly, like he’s been part of the group for four years,” Callahan said.
Quinton is appreciative of that, and the chance to row again, but hasn’t forgotten his collegiate roots.
“I think I am definitely more grateful to be out on the water,” he said. “I don’t want to take that for granted, being that we lost last year. I don’t know how I will feel lining up for competition but I am sure I will be very happy, but it meant quite a lot to me to row for Harvard. After rowing for the same program for three to four years you kind of build a bond with your teammates. But I am very grateful that I have a chance to come back and race collegiately.”