Cover Story: In Love with Crew

It’s one for all in the exhausting, educational, exhilarating, and uniquely cooperative sport.
by Doug McInnis

In any team sport there are players who labor in anonymity. In the sport of crew, anonymity is the rule. No one stands out because every rower does the same thing at the same time as every other rower.

What could be so special about that? “When you become part of the rowing team, they have to give up your individuality in order to make the team better,” says Ithaca’s women’s crew coach Becky Metz Robinson ’88, M.S. ’95. Men’s crew coach Dan Robinson ’79, M.S. ’95 (Becky’s husband), agrees. “It really does boil down to everybody pulling together,” he says. Becky crystallizes the idea: “Rowing is a process of learning how to be selfless.”

In many sports this would be a tall order; some of the best athletes have egos to match—or best—their talent. In rowing, a bloated ego is a fatal flaw; the task is not to stand out, but to blend in. The more the rowers blend, the faster their boat goes. So the sport must be able to attract athletes willing to sacrifice personal glory to the good of the group.

In most sports coaches look for these qualities among potential high school recruits. In rowing, though, there are very few potential recruits because most high schools don’t offer crew as a team sport. Schools such as Ithaca recruit rowers from current students and train them from scratch.

Teaching the basics to raw recruits is not hard; teaching the subtleties, on the other hand, can be maddeningly difficult. “I’ve always compared rowing to golf,” says Dan Robinson, who, like his wife, learned to row as an Ithaca student. “In a couple of weeks we can teach someone how to row. You can do the same with golf. But in rowing, like golf, you spend the rest of your life trying to do it just right. The added dimension with rowing is that you’re trying to do things just right with the other people in the boat.”

Absolute perfection, rowers admit, is unattainable. The successful teams are those who come closest to perfection, and in that regard Ithaca’s two crew teams have done very well in schedules in which they compete against both Division III and Division I opponents.

The women’s crew’s recent Division I opponents include Colgate, Marist, Holy Cross, and Ohio State. (Division II teams are occasionally on the schedule as well.) The women’s team won NCAA Division III national titles in 2004 and 2005, and Becky was named Division III coach of the year twice, in 2004 and 2006.

The men’s team, which is coming off two consecutive 10-win seasons, has recently competed against such Division I teams as Cornell, Michigan, UMass, Colgate, and Ohio State. The team’s best record in recent years, 14-2 in 2003, featured four wins and two losses against Division I opponents.

The object of crew is simple: to be the first boat to reach the finish line. Crews compete in regattas against multiple opponents. Ideally, Ithaca crews would like to beat all of them. If that doesn’t happen, the College records a win for each team it beats, a loss for each team that beats it. So if there are five boats competing and Ithaca beats three, the record for the day is three wins, one loss. If it beats them all, IC chalks up four wins.

The boats, known as shells, weigh roughly 210 pounds, run about 60 feet long, and cost about $30,000 each. Shells last for years, but as they age they lose some of their stiffness, and as that happens they lose some of their speed in the water. So the newest shells are used for varsity racing, the older ones for freshmen to race in.

Shells are fragile and can break. A few years ago, a men’s shell maneuvered incorrectly into a wake and snapped in two. The rowers were fished from the water unharmed, fortunately, and the shell was repaired.

The shells are propelled by eight rowers. (On rare occasions, the College competes in four-person shells.) The lead oarsperson, called a stroke, sets the pace. To do this, the stroke must have a sort of built-in timer in her or his head so that when the coxswain calls out an increase in speed of, for example, four strokes a minute, for example, the stroke can hit this precisely. The seven rowers behind the stroke match the pace.

The coxswain (pronounced “cox′-un”) steers the shell and carries out the race plan. The coxswain also serves as a sort of super-motivator to keep the crew going. “From the rowers’ perspective, the best coxswain is the one who can motivate them on race day,” says Becky Robinson. “When rowers become exhausted, having someone to keep them going is really important.”

Together, the rowers and the coxswain function as a unit in a unique endurance sport. “Running, swimming, biking, and rowing are the training sports,” says Dan Robinson, “but rowing is different from the other training sports because everyone on the team has to do it together. People who do this are a special breed. They sacrifice a lot. They don’t care about the publicity—because they don’t get any.”

“You won’t get legions of cheering fans,” agrees former IC rower Manny Delgado ’06. “Not a lot of people know about crew.”

Success depends in large part on conditioning, because rowing taxes the body to the extreme. Rowers train throughout the school year. In the fall, crews practice on the water. The winter is devoted to training, much of it on sophisticated indoor rowing machines. In the spring, rowers both train and compete.

Yet rowing is also a mental sport because it takes immense concentration and willpower to row hard and with precision even after fatigue sets in. “It’s mentally challenging to be nervous enough so that your adrenaline is flowing, but not so nervous that you’re ineffective,” explains Rebecca Wurm ’02, who in her senior year was captain and a first-team all-American and now is the coach of Ithaca’s novice rowers.

The race illustrates how the mind and body function together. A race of 2000 meters is broken into four 500-meter quarters averaging about 50 strokes each. The first quarter begins with a flurry of oar strokes to get the boat moving from a standing start. Then rowers settle into a rhythmic routine: the boat surges when the oars rip through the water, then glides as the oars are lifted up and out.

The goal is to complete a full stroke cycle without wasting energy; thus the rowers pull hard when the oar enters the water, but relax when the oar comes out. The mental trick is to alternate between extreme exertion and relaxation in a very short cycle. By relaxing in the second phase, rowers conserve energy needed to propel the boat forward.

Even so, by the third quarter, pain and fatigue have begun to set in. “The third 500 is often the most difficult,” says Wurm. “You’re not yet sprinting (toward the finish line), but it’s when your body starts to hurt. By the fourth quarter, we’re running on pure adrenaline: it’s a sprint. You tell yourself that you have 50 strokes left—that’s two minutes. You tell yourself, ‘I can do anything for two minutes.’ The mental aspect is a lot better for the last 500 meters because you can see the end.”

When pain and fatigue take over, the rowers push themselves as much for their teammates as themselves. “I’m not just working for myself,” says this year’s cocaptain Candace Eastman ’08. “I have a team that I’m working for. So I push myself harder. You know they’re doing the same.”

Crew may seem like a grind; in fact it is a grind. But the rewards of rowing are legendary among crews past and present.

For one, it yields a sensation unlike any other sport. “I remember the first time I rowed,” says Clint Weigl ’09, who dropped lacrosse to join his Syracuse high school’s rowing team. “It was the most amazing feeling to be only inches from the water and feel the water rushing by. In lacrosse you’ve got a helmet. In crew there is no safety equipment. You’re just out there with the wind rushing in your face.”

The sports also generates long-lasting benefits. “I came away with a desire to remain healthy and stay in shape,” says Dan Robinson’s onetime IC teammate Kevan O’Donnell ’79. “You get a sense of confidence that carries over into anything else you try.” 

This is also a sport where the rigors breed team unity, and that can lead to lifelong friendships. “When you spend as much time at the boathouse as we do, strong bonds form,” says Wurm. “These are friendships that last. Twice a year, I get together with my teammates and other rowers of the past.” Delgado agrees: “Everyone is so close.”

Often friendships cross gender lines, because the men’s and women’s teams use the same boathouse, see each other before and after practice, and travel together to regattas. More than one romantic relationship has developed (besides the Robinsons’). Indeed, says, Wurm: “I’ve been to four weddings of crew athletes.”

The bonding that leads to lasting friendships also helps Ithaca’s crews to win; no one wants to let their friends down, so they spur themselves until they hit their limit. As cocaptain Eastman puts it, “You’ve got to be able to push yourself to the point where you couldn’t have rowed one more stroke. And then you will have no regrets.”