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Friday, June 10, 2011
Drexel's O'Neill honors father in win

By Kalani Simpson
Special to Page 2

Liam O'Neill
Drexel's Liam O'Neill, right, and Peter Schmidt won the prestigious Dad Vail for O'Neill's sick father.

They were behind. Drexel's Liam O'Neill, in the stroke seat, and Peter Schmidt, bow, were trailing in the men's varsity pair finals at the Dad Vail Regatta on Philadelphia's Schuylkill River back on May 14.

They'd won the race the year before, won the Bob Negaard Trophy as the champions of this event at the nation's biggest college regatta. The Dad Vail is the big daddy in collegiate crew, with more than 100 colleges competing, thousands of rowers on the river. They'd won this race a year ago. But this time they were behind, running out of water on the 2,000-meter course.

They had to make a move. They had to make it now.

They caught one boat, then another. They closed hard on the leader, Lafayette. Down the stretch, they came.

And then they were even. With the finish line closing in, they were even. For what seemed like an eternity, they were even.

"We're still working on them!" the Drexel announcer yelled. The cowbells in his section pleaded for more, just a little more.

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.

Lungs seared.

Stroke. Stroke.

Muscles screamed.

This wasn't heart, or guts, or determination, or the will to win or any of that. No, this was, "the relentless pursuit of happiness," Liam's mom, Joan, would later say.

Sport is not everything. Sport is not the only thing. But sometimes, it can give you that one beautiful moment. That one great day.

Just when you need it most.

Liam O'Neill, 22, was diagnosed with severe hemophilia just weeks after he was born. This means his blood doesn't clot as it should, which means cuts, bruises and other injuries can take eternities to heal. It meant every time he did anything physical, as a kid, he would pay for it. His ankles were swollen all the time. He spent much of his grade-school years on crutches, he says.

His mom says he couldn't even kick a soccer ball without repercussions. Imagine, a normal, red-blooded American kid ...

"I could never, like, run," Liam says.

But then, in high school, "Rowing absolutely changed everything." He could be part of a team. He could work out, and compete, and be the strong young man he always knew that he was. He was an athlete. At last.

"Once he got on the water, he never looked back," his father, Sean, says.

He rowed for eight years, the last four collegiately at Drexel. This past season, the Dragons made him a team captain.

"The river is good for him," his mom says.

His parents loved seeing this in him. "When you have teenage kids you try to find a connection," Sean says. "Rowing was Liam and I's connection." He didn't know a thing about the sport, but what he did know was this: That was his son out there, competing.

Late last year, Sean was diagnosed with cancer. Bad cancer. He is positive, and optimistic, and indomitable, and inspirational, and he goes to work every day. When he answers the phone you can hear the smile in his voice.

But still, he has esophageal cancer. Serious, ominous, daunting, awful stuff.

Liam would come home from college once a week to be with his dad. Those first few months, his father could barely eat and sleep. But he would rise to the occasion.

"He wanted to get better," Liam says, "so he could come out to my races, and my little brother's baseball games and my sister's recitals."

There he was, all through the spring rowing season, in February and March, on the shore, bundled up against the cold, the wind and the rain. There were healthy people who were spooked by the freezing conditions, Liam says. But his father was always there.

"You want to see everything you can now," Sean says. "Because it may not be there. It ends."

He's savored it: "Win, lose or draw, good weather, bad weather. I've enjoyed every race."

And all through those months, through the treatments and the stress and the long, dark nights, it was always there. The big race. The great race.

Liam's last race.

"His goal was to get to the Dad Vail," Joan says. "To be physically there at the Dad Vail for the whole day."

He had to be there. To say: That's my son out there. Competing.

They were behind. And then they were even. And in the race's final strokes, they simply pulled away.

Liam and Peter held up the trophy, on the medal stand. They posed for pictures. They pumped their fists.

And then Liam looked up into the stands for his dad, the way Jim Craig did. Where was his family? There!

"They fought their way through all the other parents," Liam says. "They were right there in the front."

Liam went toward them, then. With all that had happened, he came toward them. With what he had just done, he came toward them.

"When he came running up the stairs ...," his dad says, choking up.

"He goes up in the grandstand and found his father," his mother says, her voice catching.

All they'd been through those last several months.

All of it. All the joy at seeing a kid who couldn't run grow up to do this. All of the emotion of cancer diagnoses, and chemo treatments, and fighting to make it to races in the freezing cold.

Liam went up into the grandstand and found his father.

It was the kind of hug you see in movies and dreams.

"I don't know if I can figure out words," Joan says. Just, that they'd needed this. She did. Sean did. Liam did. They all did. "We were due for a high moment," Joan says. They needed this one great day.

Afterward, Liam and Peter went back to their boat. This is what happens in crew, win or lose. Afterward, you row home.

There was a picture of the two of them, then, in that Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. Page D6. Peter has his medal, as tradition dictates. Winners wear their medals. Peter has his. Liam's face is radiant; his fist, raised to the sky.

He doesn't have a medal.

He'd left it around his father's neck.

Kalani Simpson is a freelance writer based in Omaha, Neb.

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