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David Banks: The American Dream

  • Donny Simkin, '07 by Donny Simkin, '07 English, Creative Writing Stanford Men's Rowing

It is a late breakfast in the cafeteria at the 2009 FISA Rowing World Championships in Poznan, Poland. Athletes are milling about, chatting about race conditions or iPod playlists, eggs and toast and coffee disappearing into the fuel tanks of some of the best cardiovascular human engines on the planet. On the television screen the “A Final” for the men’s pair without coxswain is about to start. All eyes are rapt, mouths still chewing. The race starts and the delegations erupt in cheers for their friends and compatriots (if, indeed, their nation is represented at all in this top 6 final).

The USA has a boat in the race. The race begins, the U.S. rowers in the cafeteria cheer and hoot, and longtime FISA announcer David Goldstrom in his memorable British accent describes how the bow of this USA pair, a one David Banks, carries with him an incredible story. It is a story of hardship and sacrifice, a tale of the American inner-city, urban centers rife with crime, poverty, and worse, inadequate rowing facilities. Through determination, discipline, and desire, this American urchin dragged himself from the gutter and unfettered himself from his ghetto shackles, a modern day Dickensian hero.

The U.S. athletes stopped cheering, stopped chewing, looked at each other in confusion and bewilderment. Banks? From the ghetto?

On the surface of things the U.S. athletes’ incredulity seems valid. David Baker Banks is indeed black, well, half-black, half-Jewish. He is from Potomac, Maryland, a middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C. Both his parents work with Washington advocacy groups, his father, Bill, with The Nature Conservancy, a charitable environmental organization, and his mother, Margery, with People for the American Way, a civil rights advocacy group. His older brother Adam (an attorney in NYC) and younger sister Lauren (med student at UPenn) both attended Stanford. David earned two degrees on the Farm, a BA in Urban Studies and MS in Construction Management. All this a far cry from the Urban desolation Goldstrom had described.

And yet, David’s story is still the story of the American Dream, a story of rebirth and reinvention. Like many rowers at Stanford, David walked-on. At 6’3″ and a soaking wet 165 lbs, David was more a picture of the 800m runner he had been at Churchill High School than the Olympic oarsman he became. Director of Rowing and Men’s Head Coach Craig Amerkhanian recalls David’s first day, “He showed up in a faded blue t-shirt with the arms cut-off from Churchill basketball team with ‘Banks’ on the back and underneath, the words ‘Dedication, Discipline, Desire.’ He was one of the skinniest, smallest guys on the team, and the rest is history.”

The remarkable (eventual) success of David’s rowing career is even less obvious when viewed in light of the state of that rowing team to which he chose to walk-on. “You have to remember,” Amerkhanian says, “David came to a program at a time when we had no boathouse [boats were stored outside and oarsmen launched from a parking lot], no infrastructure, things were really difficult, everything we ever got you had to work for. More than that, it was a fantastic contradiction to the rest of the Stanford experience.  The Athletic Department and Development were working to fix it, but it all took time, approvals, money, and resources. David lived through the whole process all the way through.”

And, understandably, the rowing team did not win very many races, either.

Enter that soaking wet 165 lbs. David Banks. I met David when he was junior. It was the fall of 2003, my freshman year at Stanford, and with the half-baked notion that it would aid in my quitting smoking, I too decided to walk-on to the rowing team. It is a balmy Friday in late October, Homecoming Week, with red and white everywhere, almost eclipsing the green manicured lawns and red-tiled Spanish roofs. The Ford Center/Burnham Pavilion is the center of all the reunion hubbub. It also happens to house the rowing team for land training on the erg rowing machines. Every year the protocol has been to wheel out the machines and line them up in front of the building, for all to see, and get the work done outside. At the end of the line are the Varsity rowers, clearly the best guys. And on his face, a look that is so completely raw — focus, rage, determination, pain — there sits the now dry 190 lbs. David Banks, rippling.

David became my teammate, my roommate, and my friend. He has the deepest work ethic of any person I have ever known. His rowing career at Stanford was paved and pockmarked with one disappointment after another. Banks used to tell me how at Stanford we knew how to lose in every way, from being up or starting down, feeling good through the body of a 2000 meter race, or frightened. We were experts on losing. And he wasn’t wrong, as his Varsity finished 17th in the country that year, in a sport that only invites 24 teams to the national championship.

And yet, my freshman boat finished 5th that year having made the A Final for the first time in Stanford Men’s Rowing history, and we were no dynamite crew. Ragtag, we had no business being fast. But we had Banks, with his quiet, unwavering respect for his teammates, coaches, the program, and the work. We had Banks to lead us, to tell us that it was all just work, even in our failures, we were just getting the work done.

David’s disappointments were not over. After finishing his undergrad he stayed on to “co-term”, after having spent a miserable summer being ignored at the National Training Center in Princeton, N.J. That year we lived together off-campus, and with his large courseload, especially the engineering courses for which his BA had not quite prepared him, he still got the work done. He trained on his own, and almost all of it was on land, on the erg. He spent an entire year, the first of his Olympic campaign, erging by himself. Without support or coaching, just the work.

David and I were both invited to Princeton the following summer, where along with current National Team oarsman Warren Anderson we were cynically dubbed “The U.S. Dream Team,” as in, if you are going to make it, you better be dreaming for next year, kid, because this time around is not your turn. We had a great summer, Banks and I, rowing all the time and keeping ourselves amused once everybody else had gone off to the World Championships. In September, I went back to California for my senior year and Banks stayed in Princeton, still ignored. He spent that entire year paddling around the lake in a single, waked down by the coaches, suffering on the erg during the frozen winter.

Rowing in America is an old sport, but not a rich sport. There are not enough resources for U.S. Rowing to fund development athletes. Banks, now with two Stanford degrees at home in Potomac, paid his bills working at the Running Company on Nassau Street, Princeton’s running shoe store. He and I painted basements that summer. After getting fed up with waiting for a construction management job from Princeton University, Banks decided to focus his non-rowing energies elsewhere, and started a learn-to-row program in Trenton, a local city that actually is reminiscent of the FISA announcer’s description of Banks’ own upbringing. David helped found Rowing-is-Growing, an after-school outreach program, working with the Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA, and Trenton Central High School to host mini learn-to-row camps at Mercer Lake, the Olympic training site, along with other National Team candidates. He worked with the Trenton After School Program to procure rowing equipment donations, and helped sponsor athletes to join the Mercer Junior Rowing Club. He has consulted with the fledgling Philadelphia City Rowing Program to advance them from start-up to self-sufficiency.

In many ways, it is David’s profound sense of the discrepancy between the opportunities of his life, especially as a young black man, and the virtual absence of those same opportunities within underprivileged communities, that drives him to work as hard as he does, both on the water and now in the community. And nowhere more obvious is this a symbol for him than is his chosen sport, a nearly all-white, expensive, blue-blood sport reserved almost exclusively for prep schools and the Ivy League. Because of how tough it was for him, as a small freshman, in the early days in the Stanford Quonset hut boathouse, David has always thought of rowing as the  ”people’s sport,’ and he and his teammates as the lost boys of the Stanford varsity teams. So he started his after-school program, with rowing and mentoring and Olympic athletes and poor kids who know nothing about the sport. Getting the work done, he would say.

Summer came back around in 2007, my senior year. Stanford Men’s Rowing won the silver medal at the national championships, the best finish of any of Stanford’s 17 men’s varsity teams, a very far cry from that dismal 17th place finish of my freshman year. And at the National Team Trials in a Pair Without Coxswain along with Olympian Paul Teti, Banks set the fastest time of the regatta in the time trial and missed out on that year’s National Team by half a second in the final.

The entire rowing world, collectively, said, “Whoa. Who. Is. This. Guy?”

Banks, of course.

He made the 2008 Beijing Olympic Team in the Four without Coxswain, the priority boat for the entire team. He was bow seat of the Pair without Coxswain, also the priority boat, at Worlds in 2009 and USRowing Male Athlete of the Year. He was bow seat of the Eight at this year’s Worlds. And he still gets the work done.

Donny Simkin, ’07, was an English major with a creative writing emphasis. He is in his first season back on the Farm in the role of associate head coach for the men’s rowing team.