Sept. 10, 2016
By John Heisler
It had been designed as maybe the greatest celebration ever for rowing at the University of Notre Dame.
On Friday night the new McConnell Family Boathouse, hard by the St. Joseph River near downtown South Bend, had been scheduled for a blessing, dedication and dinner.
On top of that, this moment came less than a month after former Irish rower Amanda Polk claimed a gold medal at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio after helping the United States eight boat defeat the rest of the world.
Heady stuff, indeed.
But, instead, the muggy evening under a tent on the shore of the river that accounts for the name South Bend turned into a complicated emotional exercise that left most anyone even remotely connected with Irish rowing not knowing whether to smile, cry or laugh.
Earlier in the day the Irish women’s rowing program lost one of its own. Ailish Sheehan, from County Limerick in Ireland and a 2015 Notre Dame graduate, died from head injuries suffered in a fall Sunday in Poznan, Poland. The accident came hours after the 23-year-old Sheehan–who owns dual citizenship in both Ireland and Great Britain–helped the British four boat claim a bronze medal in the World University Championships.
It only made it more emotional to know that the daughter of Jim and Lisa McConnell, the lead benefactors for the new boathouse, had a daughter, Erin, a 2012 Notre Dame graduate who was a senior when she rowed in the same Irish boat as Sheehan.
Sheehan had been studying for her master’s degree in design and environment at the University of London and rowed for the college. She had won Irish championships as a junior and senior oarswoman for St Michael’s Rowing Club in Limerick. Sheehan also represented Ireland at the World Under-23 Championships in 2013, placing fourth with the Ireland W4-boat in Linz-Ottensheim, Austria, and becoming the first international Notre Dame rower to compete at that event.
Plenty of people in attendance Friday night knew Sheehan–and that only made it tougher to sort out the appropriate emotions for the occasion.
University associate vice president Micki Kidder, who served as master of ceremonies, referred to the loss of a “remarkable shamrock sister.”
“Our collective pain is real, it’s raw,” Kidder added. “This morning her life ended much too soon. We remember tonight her deep passion and commitment to Notre Dame rowing, her contagious humor and her love for dancing, which many of you may have experienced, and her leadership in inspiring others. We grieve together, we pray together and we remember her together.
“I know Ailish would want us to share stories of this sport, I know she would want us to dream of what’s ahead and dream wildly together. She was supposed to be here this evening–that was her plan–to celebrate this new facility she was truly enthusiastic about. Ailish and her classmates were actually the first ones at Notre Dame to go all four years to the NCAA Championships.”
A second-team All-American as a senior at Notre Dame in 2015, Sheehan placed second in the first varsity eight grand final (6:28.60) behind eventual team champion Virginia at the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. She helped the Irish finish in 17th place overall at the NCAA Championship after crossing the finish line in 6:44.901 of the first varsity eight C final. As a junior she was a second-team all-ACC choice.
Added Notre Dame vice president and James E. Rohr director of athletics Jack Swarbrick, “It’s fitting in some ways that these two events coincide today–one unspeakably tragic and one celebratory–because they both speak of family. The rowing team that grieves today can do that as a family, as a unit, because athletics has created that bond among them. To the extent this facility helps make that bond stronger it has done a far more important thing than simply create a sport venue.”
The addition of the McConnell Family Boathouse (with the former Irish boathouse next door now donated to the city) becomes yet another shared Notre Dame facility that will help forge the relationship between the University and the community. Much like the Compton Family Ice Arena, home not only to the Jeff Jackson’s Irish team but to youth hockey events virtually every weekend, the new rowing facility accents the community pillar that ranks as one of the five hallmarks of Notre Dame’s athletic goals. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg eloquently echoed all that in his remarks Friday night.
Notre Dame director of campus ministry Rev. Pete McCormick, C.S.C., provided the invocation and blessing–and current senior rower Catherine Wagner offered a closing benediction. In between Irish men’s club team coach Mike Lehmann also offered his thoughts on how the new facility would impact the program.
Irish women’s coach Martin Stone, who has taken his teams to the NCAA Championship on eight occasions, logically would have been another of the speakers Friday evening–but the emotion produced by Sheehan’s loss made that unrealistic.
It was left for Jim McConnell to offer a final tribute to Sheehan: “I spoke with Erin today and she talked about how Ailish was so fun-loving and such a free spirit. She was an amazing teammate and always a positive force no matter the circumstances.”
Sheehan’s death drew international notice. Ireland President Michael Higgins said, “A talented rower and student of design, her loss will be felt acutely by her teammates and colleagues. This is a cruel blow for all those who were so were impressed by her rowing success.”
Irish Olympian Sinead Jennings, a former teammate of Sheehan, described the Limerick athlete as “one of the most talented I’ve ever met.”
Limerick Mayor Kieran O’Hanlon asked for the Irish flag to be flown at half-staff outside Limerick city and county council offices on Monday in Sheehan’s memory.
Kidder noted a candle–brought to the dedication from the Grotto on the Notre Dame campus–that was lit Friday night in remembrance of Sheehan: “It’s a representation of the light she brought to the Notre Dame rowing family.”
A moment of silence will be observed Saturday prior to the Notre Dame-Nevada football game to recognize Sheehan’s death.
Rowing is a historic sport offering at Notre Dame, dating to a social rowing club in 1867, establishment of the men’s rowing club in 1964 and the addition of women’s rowing as a varsity sport in 1998.
There will be scores of past, current and future rowers who will relish the notion of community that the glossy new McConnell Family Boathouse provides.
They’ll rue the reality that Ailish Sheehan won’t be there to join them.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been observing the Notre Dame sports scene since he joined the Irish athletics communication staff in 1978.