Crew team training hard for first crack at competition

Dawn on Mercer County Lake. The sun peeks over the treetops, illuminating the static sheet of glass that stretches across the landscape. Daylight dances on the water’s surface, the stillness of which is only broken by the ripples issued from the blades of eight oars rowing in perfect unison. The College’s crew team is practicing at a time when most students aren’t even awake.

By 7 a.m., the men’s and women’s teams have finished their exercises on the lake for the day and must relinquish it to the 2008 women’s Olympic rowing team. They return to the College to attend the day’s classes and to get some time in on the ergometer, a rowing matchine vital to their cardiovascular endurance training.

The crew team has yet to row competitively, so this season will mark the team’s first competitions. They were scheduled to race against Lafayette University last Saturday, but the race was cancelled due to flooding. The women’s team will travel to Massachusetts on April 17 for their first race, while the men will make the same trip on April 23.

By fall, the team hopes to establish itself as a Division III crew team to be reckoned with. If all goes as planned, the team will compete in six-kilometer races in Philadelphia, a big step for a new team trying to find legitimacy in the world of rowing.

The College’s crew team was established in Spring 2003. They have been practicing on the Mercer County Lake for less than one year, with only a single boat, a one-year-old women’s lightweight bought from Princeton. The boat, which was named “The Scoop,” carries eight rowers and a coxswain, who gives the commands to stroke.

Another boat, a heavyweight for men, was purchased for $11,500 but has yet to arrive from China. In the meantime, they have a loaner boat for the men.

The crew team is currently being coached by volunteers Heather Cullen, Bret LeMin and Mo Ahmad. These coaches ride in a borrowed motored launch during their exercises on the Mercer.

Part of the difficulty in establishing a crew team on campus has been the enormous cost of the sport. They’ve found ways to cut costs, such as a government discount program which has allowed them to purchase a 15 horsepower two-stroke engine for only $700.

The Student Finance Board (SFB) allotted the team $7,500, a generous sum from the Student Activities Fee (SAF), but even that does not come close to covering the expenses accrued by a newly formed rowing team.

Therefore, the team must rely heavily on fundraising activities to sustain themselves. They run 15-20 fundraisers per semester, ranging from T-shirt sales to raffles to “ergothons,” sponsored marathon sessions on the ergometers. According to sophomore Chris Mecoli, president of the team, the team raises about $10,000 a year.

The funds go toward paying for their boats, renting equipment and renting time on the lake to practice. The team is thankful for all the financial support they have received. “Everyone has been great. They’ve really helped us along,” Mecoli said.

The sport is not only financially straining, but physically straining as well. “I’ve done long distance running in track and field and it is nothing compared to this,” junior Stephanie Routson, women’s vice president of the crew team, said. “You will die and come back to life many, many times, while rowing.”

Several team members commented that the Olympic rowers they watched on television made the sport look rather easy, but when they tried it for themselves, they realized just how difficult it was.

A large part of the difficulty lies in timing. If the rowers do not stroke in unison, it makes the task of moving the boat much more arduous. It is therefore critical that all the blades of the oars push through the water at the same time. When they first began rowing together, much of the team’s practice time was spent in synchronizing their technique.

“There’s no other sport where there is so much (elegance),” junior Carolyn Botros, captain of the women’s team, said.

“You see it and it’s just so beautiful and graceful,” Routson said. “In the mornings, the only thing that moves the water is our blades coming down at the same time. It’s just magical.”

The executive board of the crew team has made sure to schedule many social events, such as trips to regattas, designed to bring the group closer together. They hope this solidarity will remain strong when they’re on the water.

“Watching this thing grow has given me an overwhelming sense of pride,” junior Josh Bank, men’s vice president of the team, said.

It has been a long road for the College’s crew team to get where they are today. They’ve felt the strain, physically, mentally and financially. But their hopes are high for the future. It may finally be time for these athletes to get their recognition.