At 6 p.m., on Saturday, May 6, our varsity crew sits at the line for the Grand Final of the New England Championships. Stokely, an inexperienced sophomore, in bow; Dave, a junior, who, of all of us, is the only one built like a real oarsman, in two; Greg, another sophomore, in three. In four is Geordie, a senior, who has been taking so much Advil for his bad back that he doesn’t bother counting the pills – he just takes a swig from the bottle. In five and six, Matt and Haynes, seniors, both rowing in the first boat for the first time this year. I’m sitting in seven; a few weeks ago I thought my season was over, after strangely falling ill. In stroke position is “Nordic,” another sophomore. Shorter than the rest of us, he seems to hold fast to the law that a person’s erg scores are inversely proportional to their mass. At the rudder is Emily, 105 lbs. of hell.
Our start: all over the place. Terrible. At 500 meters, we’re vying for fifth place, out of six. Three minutes into the race: Trinity in first, about a length up from us. Coast Guard, who beat us by a good length only seven days earlier, in second, seemingly untouchable. We continue to row franticly, sloppily, the gunwhales wobbling from side to side. Even with Wesleyan. Even with Boston College. We’re racing for the bronze.
Five hundred meters to go: Coast Guard, formerly untouchable, begins to sag. We start sprinting. Emily is swearing, screaming, cajoling, pleading, begging us to find a few more ounces of speed.
Ten strokes to go: Up a seat on Boston College? Down a seat to Coast Guard? We cross the line, and collapse.
Trinity crossed the line first, that’s clear. Did we catch anyone? Do we return home without a medal?
The voice of the announcer carries faintly across the water. We strain to hear, and we pray.
“Results of the Men’s Varsity Eight Grand Final: In sixth place…Tufts University. In fifth place…Wesleyan University. In fourth place…Coast Guard Academy. In third place…Boston College…”
Margin between second and fourth place: .3 seconds.
365 days of work for one six minute race. Hundreds of thousands of strokes taken to prepare for a mere two hundred. A 2000-meter race decided by a one-foot margin.
It always amazes me, when I talk to friends of mine on the swim team, how much of a foregone conclusion winning the New England Championships seems to be for them. Not that they are overly confident: they simply have the magic formula. The team takes the finest athletes from across the country, works them harder than any other team, maybe puts them up in a decent hotel the night before the big event, and there it is. When you race two or three athletes in each of a dozen events, the law of averages dictates that, if your team, using the formula, should landslide on paper, there is nothing that a couple of subaverage performances can do to take that win away from you.
Such a magic formula has been absent from my rowing career, try as I have, along with the rest of my team, to find it.
Trinity College, we hear, manages to bring in a boat-full of experienced rowers every year, perhaps we can do something similar? This year was supposed to be a big recruiting year for Williams Crew. We managed, it had seemed, to acquire seven (not quite a boat, but almost) experienced first-years.
Before we even reached the boathouse this fall, the number was cut down; a deferral or two, a thanks-but-no-thanks, and a couple I’ve-never-really-rowed-before-never-really-planned-on-it-either-but-oh-by-the-way-thanks-for-putting-in-a-good-word-to-Admissions-for-me.
We remained unfazed. The two first-years we had left by winter study were quite strong, and had helped propel us to a successful fall racing season. But the long winter, as always, took its toll, and after another thanks-but-no-thanks and a season-ending injury (agonizingly, a mere three weeks before spring break), our first-year quotient was back to zero.
“We need to be as big as all those huge guys we row against.” A weight-lifting regimen, with the assistance of Fletcher Brooks, probably helped us more than we realized, but I am certainly no more of a hulk than I was seven months ago.
“We need to sit at the line knowing that our erg scores can match anybody else.”
Ah. The erg. The rowing ergometer is probably the closest thing we have in rowing to a magic formula, but everybody knows that “ergs don’t float.” After three months of a solid and strenuous erg program, though, our times barely beat those of the New England’s slowest crews.
We came home with silver medals. Coast Guard, slower than us by 0.3 seconds over 2000 meters, walked away empty handed. It’s just one race; can we really say now that we are better than Coast Guard? Of course, we’ve sat on that other side of the table as well – our JV men lost the bronze to Colby, after beating them in the heat, by one second.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s all in the dice. Sometimes there are crews that seem to be getting everything right: our varsity women, for example. While warming up for the grand final of our event, we watched the start of their race. Surrounded by the frantic, spraying oars of their opposing crews, they seemed to me to be moving in slow motion, taking half as many strokes and traveling four times as far.
Perhaps this was my own imagination; a projection of my own confidence in them, my knowledge through daily experience training that they were the toughest, strongest oarswomen in New England. I didn’t see more than those ten first stokes, but I knew that they had won the race.
Trinity’s men are another example: undefeated this year, they beat the rest of the field by a solid four seconds. Yet Trinity, with their annual boatload of prep-school crew freshmen, has failed to medal at New Englands for the past three years. Similarly, what happened to UNH, which held the championship for three years in a row, but didn’t even make this year’s final? There was something that we found, that Trinity found, but it wasn’t in the admissions office or in the erg room. It’s impossible to bottle. It’s not a formula.