SARASOTA — With his sport sunglasses pulled down over his eyes, Triston Waiss peered out over the water at Nathan Benderson Park and felt a sense of calm wash over him.
Only a few days prior, the Pine View School junior and Sarasota Crew rower had pulled out of the men’s lightweight single race. He just couldn’t go through with it. He wasn’t about to let anyone down.
But, after talking with his mother, Rhoda, and his trainer, Willie Thomas, Waiss began to rethink his decision.
“They just told me to think about it because if I let the opportunity go by, I may regret it later,” Waiss says. “They said to just let myself try and go for it.”
With his mother’s and Thomas’ words of encouragement filtering through his mind, Waiss stepped into the single for the start of the men’s lightweight single at the FSRA Sculling Championships April 12 and April 13.
Waiss finished second in his initial heat and felt he had a chance heading into the finals. A strong crosswind hindered Waiss’ start, but he gradually went from last place all the way to second with 400 meters to go.
As he began his final push, Waiss lost his right oar. But, rather than giving up, Waiss recovered his oar and sprinted for home, winning the race by four seconds and securing his first state championship.
“I’m glad I did it,” Waiss says. “I was nervous when I first got in, but it’s a huge experience. It’s awesome to get that gold medal.”
It’s a moment Waiss will never forget.
It’s also one that almost never happened.
MOMENT IN TIME
It was a typical last day of practice for the Crew. It was Dec. 20, 2013, and the team was preparing for its two-week holiday break.
Waiss strapped on his helmet, said good-bye to his mother, who stayed behind to pick up an erg, his coaches and his teammates before hopping on his bike and beginning the short ride home.
Waiss knew the route by heart. It was the same one he took every day. But today would be different.
Waiss was hit from behind by a car on U.S. 41. He flew up into the windshield and was thrown some 50 feet in the air before landing on the pavement. He suffered a severe concussion, two brain bleeds, a left lung contusion, shoulder and neck injuries.
At the time, his mother had recently left the Crew site and got caught in the traffic that had formed as a result of the accident. She immediately called her son, but didn’t get a response back, which was uncharacteristic. Af calculating the time between Waiss’ leaving and the accident, Rhoda Waiss knew something wasn’t right.
She quickly called 911 and got confirmation there had been an accident involving a car and bicycle. But it wasn’t until she made her way up to the scene and saw her son’s bike and helmet, which was cracked in three places, lying in the street that her worst fear became a realization.
Waiss was transported by ambulance to All Children’s Hospital where he underwent a series of neurological tests. After responding well to the tests and the bleeding in his brain gradually decreasing, doctors determined he wouldn’t need surgery.
Waiss was released from the hospital two days later; however doctors told him it would be six months before the bleeds completely disappeared and a year for his cognitive processing issues to diminish.
Waiss doesn’t remember anything about the accident except being wheeled into the emergency room, where he was met by his coach.
“I remember looking up and saying ‘I’m sorry,’” Waiss says.
LIFE ON THE WATER
An Indiana native, Waiss discovered rowing for the first time when he was 9. His family had recently moved to Florida and was enjoying a day on the beach when Waiss saw the Sarasota Crew men’s varsity 8+ on the water.
Waiss stared in awe before shouting back to his parents, “I want to do that!”
Waiss waited for the boat to return to shore before approaching the team. That’s when Waiss learned the Crew, who didn’t have a middle school team at the time, required him to wait until he was 14 years old to participate.
It was a long five years.
In the meantime, Waiss began taking sailing lessons at the Sarasota Sailing Squadron and participated in other water-related activities. But his interest in rowing never wavered.
Finally, during eighth grade orientation in June 2010, Waiss met a friend who invited him to try the Crew’s two-week summer camp.
After completing the Crew’s learn to row camp, Waiss asked his parents to cancel all of his other summer camps so he could focus on rowing.
Waiss joined the Crew’s freshman novice squad a year later and slowly worked his way up the ranks, winning a bronze medal in the men’s lightweight quad at last year’s state championships.
“It seemed easy at first, but there’s a lot of learning that goes into it,” Waiss says. “I enjoy being on the boats and rowing. It’s the next best thing to flying. It’s a lot of fun gliding across the water.”
Waiss returned to the water for the first time Feb. 4 — less than two months after his accident.
“I got to come back home,” Waiss says. “It was great. I felt a little wobbly in the single (though). It takes a lot more focus than you’re willing to give it credit for. You have to be willing to train on your own.
“The power of thought is (intense),” Waiss says. “If you focus on a goal and let it grow, then it’ll happen a lot faster than you think.”
Through an agreement with his doctors, Waiss was able to complete his rehabilitation at the Crew site. A month later, March 5, Waiss was cleared to complete a 2K erg test, which allowed him to return to competition.
Most recently, Waiss helped the men’s lightweight varsity 8+ and men’s lightweight double to second-place finishes at the USRowing Southeast Junior District Championships May 10 and May 11, at Nathan Benderson Park.
With the second-place finishes, both boats qualified for the USRowing Youth National Championships June 13 through June 15, in California.
“Nothing good happens when you hold back,” Waiss says. “I’ve learned to leave it all on the water. Our motto here is if you’re still standing after the race, then you didn’t go hard enough.”
A brother’s gift
Triston Waiss began rowing when he was 13 years old and always wanted to share the experience with his younger brother, Liam.
Liam, now 13, was born three months premature and has cerebral palsy. The two brothers had talked about rowing together in an adaptive boat for some time, and last October the two were finally able to fulfill their dream.
During the Sarasota Invitational Head Race at Nathan Benderson Park, Triston and Liam Waiss were invited to row an adaptive double together. The two took to the water together for the first time, each in his own seat. Triston Waiss still remembers the look on his younger brother’s face.
“I thought it was really fun seeing his reaction to the water and being in the boat,” Triston Waiss says. “I wanted him to get the chance to express himself because the sport has brought me a lot of joy.”
June 10, 2010 — Waiss attended the Sarasota Crew’s learn to row camp and joined the team shortly thereafter.
Dec. 20, 2013 — Waiss was hit by a car while riding his bike home from Crew practice. He was thrown 50 feet in the air and suffered a severe concussion and two brain bleeds, among other injuries.
Dec. 22, 2013 — The bleeding in Waiss’ brain stopped. He was able to walk, maintain temperature and eventually go home.
Feb. 4, 2014 — Waiss returned to the water in a single for the first time since the accident.
March 5, 2014 — Waiss completed a 2K erg test and was cleared for competition.
March 22, 2014 — Waiss competed in the Triple Dual where he finished first in the men’s second lightweight varsity 8+
March 29, 2014 — Waiss finished first in both the men’s lightweight double and men’s lightweight varsity 8+ at the FSL Regatta.
April 13, 2014 — Waiss won the men’s lightweight single at the FSRA Sculling Championships to win his first state championship.
May 11, 2014 — Waiss finished second in both the men’s lightweight varsity 8+ and the men’s lightweight double at the US Rowing Junior District Championships to qualify for the USRowing Youth National Championships.
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected]