They couldn't row.

One of them couldn't even speak.

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Jack Alden tried to stand up in front of schoolmates at a chapel service Friday morning to talk about one of his best friends on the Episcopal Academy rowing team and couldn't get past the first few words.

"I just burst into tears," Alden said of the memorial service for Paul Pratt, a junior on the Episcopal Academy team who was killed in a one-car accident Thursday night.

Alden and senior Pat Bernhardt, his partner on the Episcopal Academy boys' lightweight double, made up their minds: They weren't going to compete at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta.

About 30 hours later, Alden and Bernhardt stood on the winner's platform on the dock in front of the grandstand, a championship trophy in their hands, a smile on their faces, wonder in their hearts.

Episcopal Academy coach Molly Konopka said Alden and Bernhardt's victory and the performance of all the Churchmen at the 87th edition of the world's largest and oldest high school rowing competition, "speaks to the resiliency of the human spirit."

The lesson of this unforgettable weekend on the Schuylkill, the coach said, was that "even in the darkest times, there is a lot of strength in people. They are there for each other."

It was some scene when Alden and Bernhardt crossed the line and climbed on the dock, and when the Episcopal Academy girls' senior quad finished second and rowed to receive their medals with "Pull For Paul" written on their arms, and when Pratt's old boat, the boys' senior four, took third in the most anticipated race of the day.

Half the grandstand was chanting "Pull for Paul . . . Pull for Paul" when that team arrived at the dock. Stotesbury officials presented the Churchmen with an extra bronze medal, for Pratt.

Moments later, the Churchmen gave the medal to Pratt's mother, Kimberly, who hung it around her neck. Then the teams from Montclair and Father Judge, which finished first and second, respectively, in the race, walked to the end of the dock to congratulate and console the Episcopal Academy squad.

"We feel like the whole rowing community has taken this personally," Konopka said. "The kids have been stunned at how many people care."

Alden said that he and Bernhardt were "too devastated" to row on Friday morning. They changed their minds after their teammates suggested that Pratt would have wanted them to compete.

Bernhardt said once the Churchmen decided to compete, they were determined to shine.

"It was motivation for us," Bernhardt said. "We wanted to show what we could do for our teammate."

Late in Saturday's championship race, with his boat in a taut duel with Bonner-Prendergast, Alden said, he yelled to Bernhardt to "Pull for Paul."

Alden said he was stunned to hear Bonner-Prendergast bow Chris Nichols yell the same thing.

"He yelled it right back at us," Alden said. "I couldn't believe it. That meant so much."

About an hour after the race, Alden and Bernhardt were back at the team's headquarters at the Fairmount house on Boathouse Row.

They knew it was no use trying to make sense of a victory that was sweet and bitter, a moment that was happy and sad. They knew it was just a race, and that it shrivels into insignificance when measured against matters of life and death.

But they also knew that they had made the right decision: To row, and to do their best. That was enough, although those gold medals around their necks were kind of nice, too.

"I can't say I'm ecstatic," Alden said. "But I feel good that we did something like this for a person that we love."

Contact Phil Anastasia at panastasia@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @PhilAnastasia. Read his blog at www.inquirer.com/jerseysidesports