It’s 5:30 a.m. on a dark, starless Tuesday morning and nine girls are slumped over on the middle of Dow Lake in a fiberglass rowing shell. They are wrapped in layers of long-sleeved clothing and Under Armour, fighting the bone-chilling 40-degree weather. The coxswain looks like a homeless person with a mismatched plaid, over-sized jacket and rainbow pants.
The rowers exhale a frosty vapor with every stroke. Coach Megan Chapman slowly appears as the two-stroke motor of her fishing boat struggles to life. “All right ladies, let’s get started,” she projects across the water. As her words echo across the hills, in the distance an eerie sloshing sound emanates from the darkness.
“Uh-oh, here come the zombies,” Six Seat exclaims.
* * *
“I have bow seat, now get me open water! Let’s take 20 to pass,” the coxswain yells at her eight rowers.
And with that, the Ohio University club rowing team takes their opponent’s lead and continues to storm down the river to success.
The exhaustion by now is painted over the faces of the rowers. Eyebrows are angled downward in a fury and all 16 legs burn a patchy, scarlet red. Small beads of sweat continue to drip down into the women’s eyes, creating a blinding sting.
Stroke seat lets out a grunt at the beginning of each stroke, and behind her the seven other rowers follow in unison. With medals on the women’s minds, the puddles created by the force of the stroke turn into tidal waves. Nineteen blinding minutes later, the horn sounds. It’s over. The command to stop is issued, and every rower collapses. Four Seat drenches herself with a bottle of Aquafina water as Three Seat wipes clean her blood-stained oar and rinses out her torn-up, blood-blistered hands. Their effort was good enough for a second place medal to start the season.
The varsity of OU Women’s Crew had a successful season last year, taking second place at their first regatta. The following week, they continued to prove their drive for success by rowing to a third place finish at their second and final race of the season. Numbers of rowers on the team usually aren’t higher than 20 every year, leaving many odds against them. They use to their advantage, however, the more individualized attention to excel. Their short fall season comes to a close rather quickly once races begin, but the training put in prior, during and after is a different story.
5 Days A Week.
Blood blisters. Calloused hands. Sore muscles. Rowers can expect all of the above when training for a regatta. These injuries become marks of pride those who endure them. It’s a lifestyle that most outsiders will never understand.
Unlike most sports, there are no substitutions in rowing. There is no option to trade out for fresh legs half way through a race. Sometimes a rower will race multiple times, and training five days a week is the only way to ensure competitive performance.
* * *
The rumble of rubber tires on brick disrupts the perfect silence as two cars travel through the darkness. It is 5 a.m. on a typical weekday for the women of OU as they make their way to practice, warmed up and ready to row by 6 a.m. Wrapped in at least three layers of clothing, the women brave the morning chill and get “hands on."
“Up to shoulders, together UP. Walk it down,” the coxswain commands.
They lift the boat off the blocks that are sitting on the pavement, and walk it across the uneven black parking lot to the dock. On command, they set the boat in the water, and prepare to get strapped in.
After the warm-up, the coxswain is bombarded with eight sweatshirts and five pairs of pants as the rowers just begin to break a sweat. She welcomes the warmth as she continues to bark commands.
Before too long, the rowers’ body heat is warmer than the air, and the bite of the cold air is no longer noticeable. Eight separate wispy trails of steam begin to rise from the girls’ bodies. Drill after drill, practice continues.
When a drill goes wrong and oars are not together, Coach Chapman refers to the boat as a “drunken spider,” with all eight legs acting independently. Practices become harsher, hands become even more torn up, and legs feel like a roaring fire on a blustery winter day. Every bead of sweat culminates into a boat that looks more like a duck gliding effortlessly atop the water- a boat ready for competition, as long as all equipment is in check.
“What was that?” Stroke Seat inquires in an uneasy tone. All eight rowers stop rowing, and Stroke Seat detaches her seat from its tracks. The magnet that communicates the stroke rate to the coxswain snapped off the bottom of the seat, just one of the many equipment obstacles OU women have to deal with.
“Why are we stopping, ladies?” Coach Chapman stops to ask. Frustration begins to mount on everyone’s face. Some mumble words of frustration under their breath, while others slump over and bury their face in embarrassment. “I wish we could just have one practice where nothing goes wrong,” Seven Seat mutters.
Equipment breakage is a common obstacle for the OU women’s crew. The biggest complication that the girls have to deal with is small-team syndrome. Being a club team from Athens, Ohio, there are always few athletes, and therefore little money. To hurdle this complication, the team is always fundraising and asking for donations. The team assists in building bed lofts in dorm rooms for the academic year. They also help book buy-back tents, and offer assistance to the public with their rent-a-rower program through which they are hired by others to complete an array of chores for a donation.
* * *
Late September 2011.
The rain pours down in sheets as the cars roll into Stroud’s Run for practice, and it is days like this when a boathouse is much needed to protect the equipment from the weather. Drops of rain beat against the uncovered fiberglass shells like a million tiny pebbles. The washers and nuts holding the riggers of the boat in place that have not been switched to stainless steel slowly rust to their screws like dried cement. It is time for a revamp in equipment, but a lack of funds keeps the necessary repairs a mere wish.
The team rows most of the original boats that were purchased by now-alumnae when the team was created in 1995. With the exception of their 2001 four-person boat, the boats are the same age as those rowing them. Hull designs of rowing shells have developed considerably over the years. As a result, they have become faster in design, leaving OU’s team with the predicament of making up lost seconds of hull design with power and technique.
October 1, 2011.
The rain hits the bodies of the rowers like ice. Every drop sends them further and further into a submissive position, heads tucked between legs and clothing stretched in attempt to cover their bare hands and legs from the vicious bite of the air. The women are prepared for the start of the 2011 season.
The rain continued to pour down in sheets making a grip on the oar nearly impossible. Within the first 10 strokes of the race, nerves overwhelmed the women. After a few minutes, they were passed by one of their competitors, and then another team seconds later. Strokes resembled the first day of practice. Twenty minutes later, the race was over, and everyone knew they raced well enough for last place.
Their first race proved a disappointment, and it was back to the water the following week to make some major adjustments. Practices became harder as their coach hounded their technique. Exhaustion took over as rowers balanced the intense practices and diligent studying for midterms. By the end of practice every day, the struggle became apparent as the arms of rowers shook like a building in an earthquake.
But every painful stroke led to success, as the women came from dead last to first, in a matter of a week. Every drive of the legs left more open water between their boat and their competition. Second place became a mere dot barely visible in the distance. At the end of their second race, they gave one last effort to throw their hands up in excitement. All hands fell as quickly and powerfully as they were raised. “It’s fun to watch your competition row by,” Six Seat commented when the results showed that they won by more than two minutes against Denison University.
The women finished their season on October 15 in Columbus, Ohio where they raced against their most difficult competition. The women found themselves in last place once again, but with a personal best time. Only 30 seconds from third place, it was their closest race yet, and despite a longer distance and current against them, they raced an entire minute faster than their first race of the season.
It’s Worth the Early Mornings.
Beep…Beep…Beep…BEEP…BEEP..BEE.. SMACK. It’s time for another early wake-up call. Once rowers develop a love of the sport and a sense of determination, waking up early simply becomes another everyday activity. Wake-up calls come at 5 a.m. every day, and rowers “sleep in” on the days that they wake up after 8 a.m.
“It’s nice to be able to spend three hours of your day thinking about nothing but the person in front of you and the person in back of you, aiming for perfect symmetry with them. Rowing is an art form,” Kate Schmidlin, vice president of OU women’s crew said.
The best days in rowing are the days that weather permits water practice, and land practice isn’t necessary. The erg is the bane of a rower’s existence. When a team has afternoon practices, they have the possibility of violent gusts of wind conjuring up un-rowable waters, leaving practice to be completed on the ergs. “Having to stare at a blank, white wall while every muscle in your body aches like carpenters are hammering nails is an experience that should only be reserved for the winter season, when it’s impossible to hit the water,” five-year rower Betsy Martin said.
Unless a team has the problem of rowers accidentally sleeping in, they can expect to be on the water during morning practice-- one reason why teamwork and determination are two of the most important aspects of the sport. The tranquility of the water offers a sense of relaxation, even during some of the more physically exhausting pieces. If practice takes place in a populated area, there won’t be crowds of people causing distraction. It also leaves time for rowers to accomplish everything they want to in a day, and still have time to row.
“Yes, it’s rough getting up at 4:45 a.m. every day, but by the time you're out there skimming across the water watching the sunrise with eight of your best friends- it’s worth it,” said Ellen Lubbers.