Justin Best '19 competing at the Olympics this year. Photo courtesy of Justin Best.
Following a yearlong postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the world’s most exceptional athletes stormed stadiums, gymnasiums, pools and other competitive playgrounds in Tokyo, Japan, during the 2020 Olympic Games this summer.
On the Sea Forest Waterway nestled into Tokyo Bay, two recent Drexel University alumni were counted among the competition in this year’s games — one as a rower and the other as a coach, and both in their first Olympic appearances.
Justin Best ’19 rowed in the men’s eight for the U.S. while Reilly Dampeer ’21 coached her long-time rowing pupil, Privel Hinkati — the first-ever Olympic rower from Benin — in the men’s single scull.
They join a tradition of Dragons who have competed in these international games for the past nine decades — starting with Thomas Kerr, MD, who started Drexel’s crew program in 1957 after rowing in the 1932 Olympics. And the Olympic performances of Best and Dampeer help raise the prominence of Drexel’s rowing program, said Cameron Kiosoglous, PhD, assistant clinical professor in the School of Education and four-time U.S. Olympic rowing coach, who cited previous Drexel alums like Steve Kasprzyk (‘05), a 2012 and 2016 Olympic rower.
“The rowing program at Drexel has gone from strength to strength,” said Kiosoglous. “…Not only is it a significant point just to have Drexel alumni taking part in the Olympics, but also [signals] a really exciting future ahead.”
Dampeer’s rowing career started off when she was a freshman attending Santa Clara University in the late ’90s. Over the course of the next four years, she had the opportunity to row for six different coaches and compete in such prominent events as the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. This exposure to different coaching styles informed her own 13-year coaching career, which brought along with it the chance to attend and work events such as the U23 World Championship and the World Rowing Championships.
Her depth of exposure and experience allowed Dampeer to solidify her coaching philosophies and perspectives early on, but she never shied away from an opportunity to learn more. So it’s no wonder Dampeer would be inspired to pursue a master’s degree in sport coaching and leadership from Drexel — a program from which she graduated just a few months before making her way to Tokyo for the Olympics.
“I would say my expertise now is certainly a work in progress and has really been built on taking advantage of coaching education opportunities and putting myself in as many positions as possible — from taking the lead or sometimes being the [assistant coach] carrying the megaphone for the rock star head coach — but throughout it all, just being open to learning from new and seasoned coaches alike,” said Dampeer.
On the other side of the megaphone, Best also strived to fulfill his athletic and academic endeavors to the best of his ability throughout his time at Drexel. He was a member of the Drexel team that took home their fourth, fifth and sixth consecutive overall Dad Vail Regatta title, and was part of the varsity eight that earned Drexel’s first-ever win at the Henley Royal Regatta back in 2016. As a student-athlete, he focused on development in the weight room, on the rowing machine, in the scull, as well as in the classroom while pursuing his BS in business and engineering.
This tenacity helped Best compete as part of the Under 23 national U.S. team in the World Rowing U23 Championship in 2018 and 2019 before his graduation. He emphasized the impact Drexel has had on him as a rower, crediting the coaches and peers he had as encouragement along the way as to why he’s found such strong success in his rowing career.
“My goal was to leave Drexel better than I found it and not as far as just the University, but the team itself, the athletic department, and those that were super supportive of me through my four years,” he said. “I think it’s fantastic that I’ll be able to represent Drexel on the biggest stage in sports.”
It’s been anything other than a predictable Olympic debut for Dampeer and Best. COVID-19 has left a serious mark on this year’s Olympics outside of just the one-year postponement. According to a survey by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun prior to the games, over 80% of Tokyo residents believed the Olympics should have been postponed again or scrapped altogether. As of publication date, there have also been more than 300 people connected to the Olympics who have tested positive for the for the SARS-CoV-2 virus since July 1.
According to Best, protocols put in place for athletes include a COVID test within three days of travel to the games as well as a test upon arrival, and another two negative tests for admittance into the athlete’s village.
Kiosoglous surmised that due to the nature of the delay, many senior athletes hoping to take part in their last Olympics back in March of 2020 didn’t qualify this year in favor of young talent. On top of this, many athletes, especially in the sport of rowing, are showing up empty-handed considering the lack of recent opportunities to compete in international events — leaving a gap in information that could affect projected podium placement.
“I think one thing is for sure: what we’ll see at the Olympics more than any other event is that there will be a lot more pressure to perform,” said Cameron. “Those that we expect to perform well don’t, and those who we don’t expect to perform well will overperform. I think this is something we’ll see even more so than for previous Olympics.”
The Tokyo 2020 rowing events concluded on July 30 with the men’s eight final featuring Best and his teammates. Although there were favorites projected to win the event, this final regatta was so stacked with talent from around the world it was anyone’s race.
In the end, the U.S. men’s eight team just missed the podium, coming in fourth place behind New Zealand (gold), Germany (silver) and Great Britain (bronze).
Germany edges USA in rowing men's eight heat | Tokyo Olympics | NBC Sports
Three-time reigning world champion Germany posted the best time of the men's eight prelim round to advance to the A final, while the United States took second to move on to the repechage. #NBCOlympics #Tokyo2020 #Rowing
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Germany edges USA in rowing men's eight heat | Tokyo Olympics | NBC Sports
“My experience at the games was fantastic start to finish,” said Best. “While we came up short against a world-class level of competition, it was still an honor to represent the U.S. and Drexel at that level. All eyes are now set on Paris in 2024.”
Privel Hinkati finished 27 overall in a field of 32 athletes in the men’s single scull.
“Privel’s performance improved over the course of the regatta and he finished his best race,” said Dampeer. “I am proud of his journey over the past seven years and am honored to have worked with him through the Tokyo Games.”
Gabriela Marginean '10, '17 also competed for Romania in the 3-on-3 basketball competition, which made its debut as an Olympic sport at the Tokyo Games. Her team finished in 7th place.