I’m an ex-addict, an ex-masochist… an ex-rower. I get it. I miss it. It’s magical. Part of the magic is how inaccessible it is. The rower’s world is a little bit of a secret. Most people don’t know what an erg is, where the boathouse lives, or what Middletown looks like at five in the morning. “It just takes a lot of time, a lot of coffee, some napping, and a little crazy,” according to Nick Petrillo ’14.
I sat down with some rowers. You may have seen them around. They’re the kids on campus that live in exclusively Patagonia and definitely woke up before you this morning. I had them help me unpack the absurdities, and get to the “This is why.”
We were all drawn in for different reasons. It appeals to the tall, or the incredibly small, and often the high school athlete resisting the NARP temptations of college-life. Rowing is one of the few sports that have a novice team. Flocks of freshman come learn to row each fall. Crew is year round, round the clock commitment. Fall season is made up of the longer, five-kilometer headraces. During winter the team is tied to the erg and resides in the Exley stairwell, all to prep their bodies and earn speed for spring racing. The spring is the season of two-kilometer sprints. The springtime elevates in intensity. Races are nearly every weekend and sleep comes on occasion. It’s also the most exciting. You line up alongside the other boats with such anticipation and fear, and then seven or so minutes later you barely remember where you came from.
The sport itself makes little sense. It looks like this, but really should look like this. You sit backwards, in a sixty-foot long boat, on a tiny little seat that slides forward and backwards, holding a twelve-foot long oar, all while being shouted at by a little person looking over your head, steering this massive vessel with a tiny rudder. Oh, and they make you wear a unitard. It doesn’t make sense.
To the rowers though, it makes all the sense in the world. Emma Koramshahi ’16 explains, “I’m addicted to it: the strength that goes into it, the pain and chaos that somehow looks so graceful from the outside.” Yeah, rowing hurts. It’s one motion, over and over again. If you ever have more to give at the end of a race, you’re not giving enough. The goal, at times, seems to be to hurt as much as possible. An inch of water, half a second of time, and one teammate taking a weak stroke can win or lose a race. Rowing is the only sport where you can watch the other guys lose.
“The emotional spectrum between the start and finish lines…there is no other sport that encompasses that. I’ve never felt the fear I have at the start of a race,” explains Keegan Dufty ’14. “Winning a race isn’t a question of working hard. It’s you bringing yourself to your brink, to a level of fatigue that does some weird things. It makes winning all the better.”
I’ve always thought the most noteworthy part of rowing is the unique way the individuals make up the team. Each practice is a competition between you and the person next to you, all to earn a seat in the best boat. But at the same time, if the entire team ventures to the boathouse for six AM practice, and one person forgets to set their alarm, an entire boat of people have woken up for nothing. Not ideal. The best rowers are those who seamlessly blend their technique to their teammates’. Sameness, synchronization of movements yields speed and success. It’s just the antithesis of our weirdo-Wes. Emma K. explains, “You can’t just stop. In a race you have to keep going, you have no choice. In a game you can walk off the field, mess up a play. If you stop you will just get hurt, hurt everyone, the rhythm will just be disrupted entirely, and the race will be over.”
Love of team seems to be the core of the “why.” How else could one maintain the craziness of the early mornings, two a day practices, nearly every weekend of spring occupied by races? Nick explains, “When everyone is in a rhythm and together, the electricity of the start line, that’s the why. It’s just one of the top five best feelings of all time. You can’t see where you’re going. You’re just trusting that you have eight people getting you there. It’s this emotional, physical camaraderie.”
The rower’s best kept secret? Maybe the unitard, maybe the abs, maybe the sunrises, but definitely “those short, beautiful people that steer us to victory. Without them we’re just the bodies without the heads,” claims Keegan. Shout out to the coxswains, always, but majorly just a shout out to the committed, powerful, unspoken heroes of crew that are Wes’ best-kept, athletic secret.