June 4 and Dec. 15, 2005, hold very strong but opposing emotions for Joe Fahrendorf ’06. On June 4, the Yale lightweight men won the national championship — a day of glory. On Dec. 15, a car slid off an icy road, slamming into Joe and Sonya Bonnin ’06 — a day of immediate and drastic change.
Fahrendorf began his rowing career as a sophomore in high school with the Cincinnati Junior Rowing Club. He was quick to excel, and by the next year, he was rowing in the fastest high school boat in the country.
In his freshman year at Yale, Fahrendorf’s boat — comprised of many of his future best friends — went undefeated until Eastern Sprints, where the freshman boat placed third. Fahrendorf moved up into the varsity mix for his sophomore campaign, which he calls the year he learned the most about himself as a rower, and by his junior year, his “highlight year,” he was once again in the fastest boat in the country.
The rower entered his senior year with a victory at the Head of the Charles, the most prestigious fall regatta in the country, and looked to continue success into the spring and possibly try out for the U.S. national team in the summer.
Then came Dec. 15.
“Looking back on it, one of the more touching things when we were hit was when they called the guys in the house,” Fahrendorf said. “The guys ran in their shorts across the ice, taking off their clothes, and putting them on my friend and I. It was freezing, but they made sure we were warm.”
Fahrendorf came to with a concussion, a bulged vertebra and injuries to both ankles, his knee and his hip, among other places. Bonnin was only recently released from the hospital after suffering more serious injuries, and her condition preyed on Fahrendorf’s mind.
“Until she was out of the hospital, I really didn’t consider myself recovered, because my head wasn’t there,” he said. “Everything was about her. I would have given up rowing in a second if it could have helped her.”
That would have been a considerable sacrifice given the passion Fahrendorf has for the sport. Rowing is not only a chance for him to compete and, as he says, increase the efficiency of his body, but also a way for him to unwind.
“Rowing has this way of releasing stress,” he said. “You push off the dock, and you’re on the water. You’re out there rowing, and it’s rhythmic, and there are no cars, no noise. It’s just your boat on the water, and it’s one of the most soothing things I can think of. … I just go out there and pull as hard as I can, and I’m exhausted. And then there are no concerns. You just get food and water, and you rest up.”
These healing powers, along with an incredible volume of support from his teammates and head coach, Andy Card, helped the rower cope with the accident. With the goal of rowing again in mind, he went through a fairly quick recovery period. And though he is not completely healed, Fahrendorf is once again on the water. He raced for the first time this past weekend as a member of the second varsity boat in a victorious face-off against Penn and Columbia and a close second to Cornell. He soon plans to seat race for a spot in the varsity boat.
Wherever he ends up, though, he will never see his efforts as a failure.
“I want to be here and help out the team, whether it’s in the third varsity or the junior varsity or the varsity,” he said. “If it means I’ll never row in the varsity again, it doesn’t ruin my experience with crew at Yale. I’ve gotten a lot out of my three years at Yale being healthy.”
Along with building success in those three years, the Yalie also built a distinctive reputation amongst his teammates and his friends. He is known for bringing an air of intensity to the boathouse, yet he is also very approachable, acting as an ambassador and mentor to the underclassmen.
He is also known for always putting his friends far before himself, whether that means putting off work for someone who needs him or talking to a coach on behalf of another, said Nate Wenstrup ’06, a close friend of Fahrendorf’s since their time at St. Xavier High School.
“He’s one of those guys who has earned the respect of the entire team. Everybody trusts him. He’s one of the guys that sets the standard,” said Brendan Stallard ’07, adding after a moment of reflection, “He’s a sweet dude.”
This is not to say that Fahrendorf lacks a lighter side to his personality. He is an avid Cincinnati Bengals fan and allows his Sunday emotions to flow the way of Carson Palmer and Co. He also enjoys barbecuing with his fellow housemates at the Lightweight House.
But most of Fahrendorf’s interests lead back to rowing, he said, and particularly to his fellow lightweights. He loves and highly values the team dynamic of the sport. His team is extremely close and free of cliques, he said.
Along with this comfortable dynamic comes a playful irreverence, which teammates Trevor Young ’06 and Dave Werner ’06 decided to take full advantage of when asked about their close friend.
“He’s not a very good cook. Eggs, water, brown sugar, something out of a can, basically he can take those ingredients and make anything out of them,” Young said.
For his part, Werner said Fahrendorf has an “emo side.”
“Joe’s a lot more sensitive than he lets on,” Werner said, citing Fahrendorf’s alleged Maroon 5 habit and his protection of Gary, the mouse in their house.
For the remainder of the season, Fahrendorf will continue to balance his recovery with an unchanging approach to the sport. Before each competition, he wears an old shirt from his high school team, making sure to bring it with him on every trip. It reminds him of who he is and where he is from, he said. Fahrendorf gets excited just talking about the sport, but said he also remains focused when competing out on the water.
“I just go out there and I do my best,” he said. “I don’t increase my pressure at Nationals. I’ve been going my hardest every race.”
Fahrendorf said he also pushes through the pain of rowing by considering his body a machine.
“I don’t let my mind tell my body I’m suffering,” he said. “It’s like mind over here, body over here.”
After college, Fahrendorf, a history major, said he plans to work in business after obtaining an MBA. Eventually, he said, he hopes to become a teacher and a rowing coach. But for now, he is all about the present — his team, his passion and his recovery.
“I need to test myself,” Fahrendorf said. “If it hurts a little more, it’s the price I’m willing to