The Social Network, a 2009 film directed by David Fincher, features the Henley Royal Regatta, a 2112 meter rowing race held on the River Thames in England. The film showcases the race between Harvard and the Hollandia Roeiclub, exposing the absolute pain and suffering that these seemingly masochistic athletes must undergo. Despite their agony, they don’t let up until the boat crosses the finish. The teamwork for both boats is immense; no rowers fall out of the coxswain’s rhythm or miss a stroke. Clearly, a significant amount of preparation is involved for both sides.
Despite Hollywood’s penchant for exaggerating and misrepresenting reality, its portrayal of competitive rowing (at least in The Social Network) is excruciatingly accurate. The men’s and women’s crew teams at Wesleyan know the suffering depicted in the film all too well: both squads are either on the water, on rowing machines, or in the gym six days a week during their fall and spring seasons. The obvious question to ask our rowers is why they chose to pursue such a grueling sport. For most people, it is nearly impossible to understand why these athletes would willingly subject their bodies to so much pain, both physical and mental. Yet members of the crew team at Wesleyan appear to have answers as they prepare for their spring season. For Max Daley-Watson ’19, rowing provides a feeling of achievement.
“[Crew is] definitely physically challenging, sometimes painful,” he said. “You’ll really burn your lungs at that point. Pushing through the mental barrier and accomplishing and finishing the piece gives you a sense of satisfaction.”
On the women’s team, Sarah Osborn ’19 voiced similar sentiments.
“I row because I love seeing progress; I row because I love being on a team that sees the same goal,” she said. “I’m very much a team oriented person, and I’m very much a group dynamic person, so it’s really helpful to be in that environment… It’s so goddamn fun.”
Women’s team senior captain Annalee Holmdahl considers team interconnectedness to be especially important.
“I think because of the team… starting rowing, [you meet] people that are really supportive,” Holmdahl described. “When you’re in a boat, you’re a part of this thing, and when you leave you’re missing a chunk of it… You feel that weight of, ‘I’m part of something and it matters.’”
Yet Ava Miller-Lewis, also a senior captain, chalked her rowing career up to just enjoyment.
“When you have a really good race, it’s fun, or when you have a really good practice, or the boat is moving really well, it’s fun,” she said.
In the interviews with members of both crew teams, it quickly became evident that one of the most important aspects of rowing crew is teamwork. Cohesion among teammates is necessary for sustained success on the water, and strong bonds evolve organically from spending so much time together.
“We’re all doing the same thing, except for the coxswains,” Daley-Watson explained. “There’s this mutual bonding through the work that we do.”
Yet the enjoyment that members of both crew teams derive from the sport does not diminish its ferocity or formidability. Sometimes during races rowers can experience mental blackouts, where they simply don’t remember the race after it’s completed.
“I think it’s pretty common to finish a race and then not remember,” said senior Miller-Lewis. “At one point after a race I mentioned that I didn’t hear [the coxswain’s call].”
These blackouts occur on account of the intensity of the races. Since the races in the spring season are only 2000 meters (shorter than the 5000 meter races in the fall), boats start their spring races in a sprint, as opposed to conserving energy at the start to save for the finish. Consequently, these athletes enter the red zone relatively quickly in the race. Perhaps a comparable sport to the suffering in crew is professional cycling. What’s incredible about crew is that rowers are going to be spending most of the race in the red zone, whereas cyclists will tend to be in the red zone for just the last couple kilometers of a 150 kilometer race on a mountain stage. It’s no surprise, then, that rowers need an extra person to keep their strokes in check and maintain their mental toughness.
“I need to know that if [someone] is going to have that moment, what is going to make them tick,” said men’s coxswain Theo Simko ’19.
“Every time there’s been a great race, that was coxswained superbly,” said Sam Pratt ’19.
At the Head of the Charles Regatta, where the women’s team triumphed and finished first ahead of boats from Division I, II, and III schools, the team was able to save a lot of time due to excellent coxswaining. This is not just picking the right stroke count at the right time, but also angling and steering the boat along the winding Charles River in order to maintain both the straightest line possible.
Of course, the victory on the Charles River was not just the coxswain’s doing, but also a result of the strength of the Wes women in the boat. It’s no surprise, then, that the Cardinals were ranked first in a preseason poll.
“I think we have an incredible work ethic,” Osborn said. “We are incredibly driven.”
Although the men’s team didn’t find the top step of the podium on the Charles River (they finished 13th), they are looking forward to a strong spring season. In this season’s opening race at the Murphy Cup in Philadelphia, the men placed fifth in a race against Division I programs. The women also found success against the tough Division I boats, placing third.
Both teams will continue to have races every weekend until the last week of April, where they will buckle down and prepare for the New England Rowing Championships, which are held on Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Mass. on 6 May. That next Friday, they will head back to Lake Quinsigamond for the ECAC National Invitational Rowing Championships, in which the women placed third and the men placed fourth last year. If both the men’s and women’s teams maintain their current pace, big things can be expected from them this season. While the Olympics may be out their reach, perhaps some of these rowers may get to star in a rowing film of their own. Judging by the amount of time they’re putting in, they’ll have earned it.