Much attention has been brought upon the sport of crew this past year, after the highly successful 2013 release of Boys In The Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown. The book tells the story of the 1936 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning rowing team, who hailed from the University of Washington in Seattle. It is rumored that a movie deal is in the works.
I began reading the book during my second season as a coxswain for the Lewis & Clark men’s varsity boat, and despite having played soccer for thirteen years of my life, I had never been so athletically inspired by a piece of literature in my life.
I knew very little about crew when I came to Lewis & Clark, and was surprised to learn it was the first intercollegiate athletic event in the United States, when Ivy League colleges like Harvard and Yale raced each other in the 1850s on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.
The first thing I realized about crew was that it is one of the most demanding sports I’ve ever seen. Not only are the athletes subjected to the most grueling battles of strength and endurance on the water during races, they are also required to haul the boats to and from the water before and after regattas. They suffer pulled muscles and hands full of blisters.
The second and most impressive thing I’ve learned about the sport is that it is THE ultimate team sport. Being a soccer player, I thought I understood the definition of “team player.” But crew takes “team player” to a whole new level. A University of New Hampshire rower, Elizabeth Lyons, describes it, “”Everything you do in rowing is for something bigger than yourself. We don’t just put our oars in the water together; we breathe at the same time. We are one.” What this means is that no one teammate receives any individual recognition. Many sports record stats, or who scores, or even an MVP, but it is impossible to draw these conclusions in the sport of rowing. This is similar to the idea of sport in the medieval times, “In medieval football, there was room for everyone and a sharply defined role for no one. (Guttman, 37) In crew, an erg score is the only form of record for one’s performance, however, an erg score is completely inaccurate to one’s performance on the water. An erg cannot measure rhythm, technique, or the amount of water pulled on each stroke. One can have a very good erg score, but have terrible form on the water.
I believe that the lack of recognition for an individual might be a reason why crew has lost the popularity it once had. Fans like to idolize, and many athletes like to be idolized, “There is no reason to think that the thousands who jammed the circus maximus in Rome to cheer on their favorite charioteer did not react as worshipfully as the contemporary millions who idolize Pelé, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, and the other heroes of modern sport.” (37)
Link to Elizabeth Lyons Source: