By Liz Cavanaugh ’04, Associate Director of Admission & Girls’ Varsity Crew Head Coach
Bad weather. Physically and mentally grueling practices. The Erg. Travelling to and from practices. The year-round commitment. The six minutes of torture called “racing.” The unisuit. The muddy, marshy riverbanks. The long bus rides home every April and May Saturday night. The destroyed, bleeding, blistered hands.
Why crew? Because of what it builds. . .
Crew Builds Character:
I have often asked myself “Why crew?” over the last fifteen years. Why am I forcing myself to participate in this sport that 98% of the time causes me extreme physical pain and emotional distress? The answer to that question is still unknown to me, and I do not think that I will ever be able to accurately articulate why I have dedicated my life to an activity that most humans would consider “too much” or “too intense.” The truth is that there is something about this sport that elevates you to a higher level. While it pushes you to be in peak physical shape and sharp mental focus, it is something more that the sport of rowing does to a person: it builds character.
Crew Builds Dedication:
It is obvious that rowers are some of the most dedicated athletes in the world. The rowing stroke requires engagement of almost every muscle in the body and puts particular emphasis on the legs, feeling as if a person is doing a squat over and over again, while also employing the arms and shoulders to help pull the oar through the water. Similarly, rowing puts a particular strain on one’s lower back, an area of the body not usually engaged quite so intensely in any other sport. At the high school level, rowers subject their growing, ever-changing bodies to intense physical pain each day, either on the water or on the erg. At the college level, they wake up when it is still dark out, six days a week, to practice nine months a year. A friend once commented, “The only people who are awake at that hour are squirrels and rowers.” Crews practice on the water into the early winter months and are back out as soon as the ice melts. They push through practices that force them to sprint with every part of their body with no breaks in between. There is no subbing, there are no timeouts, there are no shift changes, and there is no halftime; there are no breaks. Rowers commit every muscle in their bodies to powering through water, often times through pouring rain, snow, hail, and almost always through wind.
All of this dedication is in honor of the name of the school adorned on their unisuits. Oh yes, did I mention the unisuit? Rowers also squeeze their bodies into the most unflattering piece of clothing ever stitched together, the “uni.” The uni alone scares some people away from the sport. Rowers learn to embrace the most unappealing clothing available, but know that without those remarkably fitted and elasticized bottoms, their lives would be misery when trying to move up and down the slide.
A crew program’s schedule is also one of the most strenuous. Unlike most other sports, which play around thirty games per season, there are very few competitions in rowing. On average, teams spend seven months, training twenty hours per week, for eight races per spring. To break that down, that’s 33,600 minutes preparing for 48 minutes of competition. Crews get one chance per week to display their talents and all of the work they have put in all year. Their commitment to practice and preparation is paramount. Most of one’s rowing life will be spent at practice and hardly any of it in a competition. While that is a monotonous and mentally exhausting schedule each week, rowers look beyond the repetition and commit themselves to this routine each week.
Then, there are the individuals who craft this crazy sport and serve as behind-the-scenes commanders-in-chief: crew coaches. Born of a rare and peculiar species of humans, they are individuals who enjoy designing periods of time that are dedicated to inflicting serious physical pain and psychological warfare on young, developing bodies and minds. But, they have a purpose. They take young, gangly teenagers and transform them into brawny, fearless champions. They spend hours upon hours watching the every movement of these athletes, constructing the absolute perfect stroke, the most flawless body positioning, the most aggressive, yet harmonious swing from stern to bow. They do this while driving around a dinky little motorboat. They exert all of their energy on making sure that each guy is breaking his arms at the exact same time as the man in front of him, making sure that each girl is reaching back towards the bow at the exact same angle as the woman five seats in front of her: they craft perfection in movement.
Why do they do this? Why do they insist on making sure your right wrist squares the blade at the exact same moment as the girl’s right wrist sitting two seats in front of you? Why do they call you out on every single time your left elbow rests five degrees lower than where it should rest at the finish? Because they are creating the most perfect, consistent rhythm that two, four, or eight individuals could possibly have together; a state of euphoric bliss that is achieved only when each rower is moving exactly each part of their body exactly at the same as time as others in the boat. With this, the boat has the ability to surge forward with little to no negative energy, in turn, creating an untouchable beast on the water.
There is no easy way to coach crew. It requires keen attention to detail, noticing the subtle changes of each rower’s every body movement. These coaches devote every second on the water to making the rowers’ movements precise. They are dedicated to perfection.
Crew Builds Confidence:
The feeling of pride after winning a race or nailing an erg score: that is what rowers strive for. While spending all of that time practicing for those six or seven vital minutes of competition, they learn one important lesson along the way–how to go after a goal and get it.
A former coach of mine always said, “What are you waiting for?” That is exactly the mindset a rower needs to succeed. A split second of hesitation or withdrawal will cost five seconds on the erg or one seat on the water. One instant of retreat will cost you a medal. What are you waiting for? Crew forces you to fully commit yourself with no turning back. Once that flag is lowered and the starting command is given, “Attention: Go,” these athletes are officially forced to become in the zone, and it’s the confidence of minds that will propel their bodies not to let up. Those last thirty strokes of the race, pushing off with every ounce of muscle and sitting up as tall and strong as possible, those are the moments rowers remember. They remember the mental fortitude that was needed to keep them going. That is the self-belief that stays with them beyond their rowing careers and is applied to many different areas of life. Crew builds faith in one’s self.
Crew Builds Commitment:
Athletes who choose rowing are choosing commitment. There is no glory in rowing, compared to other sports. There are no televised races, there are no professional leagues, there are very few fans at races, there are no brackets, there are no ESPN commentators, and there is very little publication of the sport throughout the world. Most people think that rowers are the tall people on campus who get up early and row in boats for fun. There are the very few who go onto row in the Olympics after college, but other than that, there are no opportunities beyond college to further a rowing career. Most people are not aware of crew. Rowers dedicating their lives to this sport are doing it for “the love of the game.”
Rowers also commit to each other. A crew cannot successfully row well without each rower committing 100% of themselves to the person in front of them and behind them. It is pertinent that all members of a crew do their part in building boat speed. If one member of the crew is lacking, the whole crew lacks.
Crew Builds Loyalty:
There is no tighter “clique” than a crew. The bond these rowers form with each other is one that most will never experience. It is very rare to find a group, either in high school or college, in which each member is not only forced to do the exact same thing, at the exact same time as each other, every single day, but more importantly, puts in 100% trust in each other to do so. While at times, the thought of waking up six days a week at 5:30AM for physical and mental torture out in the middle of an enormous body of water sounds like a cruel and unusual form of punishment, the thought of letting anyone down within the crew is just unimaginable. It is those early mornings, those long walks to and from the boathouse, those bus rides, those forty-five minute pre-race warm-ups, those early morning winter erg workouts, those moments together that make the bond of rowers. Looking back, I am not sure I will ever again find such bonds as the ones I have found with my high school and college crews, and I fondly look back at my teammates at St. Mark’s and GW as my family, more so than friends.
So, why crew? The sport transforms a person into a strong, confident, dedicated individual. I firmly believe that I am the person I am today because of the education I received on the water. Lessons learned from the sport of rowing mean so much more when they are taken outside of the boat. Now, as a coach, I will know I have successfully done my job if I help to instill those same values within my athletes.
Liz Cavanaugh ’04 is in her second year as the Head Coach of the Varsity Girls’ Crew program, after working alongside Head Coach Andy Harris and Coach Kinne McBride for four years. She began her rowing career as a student at St. Mark’s and went on to stroke two Atlantic 10 Champion crews at The George Washington University. Outside of crew season, she enjoys running, playing squash, and cheering on all of the other St. Mark’s and Boston sports teams.