A cold, gray day in February, and the Radcliffe heavies must face the grim weight circuits, tanks, and ergometers. The crew knows the workouts will get harder, longer. A subdued atmosphere bred by depression engulfs the boathouse, until co-captains Kelly Ronan and Karen Spencer trade quips, start laughing, and the crew loosens up.
When Karen Spencer first arrived in Cambridge, she wasn't sure Radcliffe had a crew. She began rowing freshman year to stay in shape for basketball, and hasn't stopped since.
Sunday, the Radcliffe heavyweights will travel to New Preston, Conn., to race in the Eastern Sprints Championship, culminating the career of the senior rower extraordinaire. Soon after the race, Spencer will compete for a position on the National Olympic squad as one of two college oarswomen invited to the trials.
"I fell in love with crew the first day I did it. There are very few situations where you have to work with people. You're forced to put aside personal feelings and say to yourself, 'I have to work with these eight people.' It's a great, collective feeling," Spencer says as the reflects on the peculiar lure of crew.
Aside from basketball, Spencer played field hockey, volleyball and softball in high school, as well as enjoying singing and drama. Then came crew, and that overwhelming collective feeling. "The neatest thing about it is you don't compete with anyone in the boat. We either all win or we all lose," she says.
To brace herself for the Sprints, Spencer will go through a psyching process. She will remind herself of the undefeated heavy boat's strength and determination. "Then I'll tell myself that it's only 1500 meters, only six minutes of my life, that we can kill ourselves for six minutes. I'm certain we can win," she says.
Beneath the engaging charm and cheery exterior lies a host of deep-seated beliefs Spencer is modest to the point of resenting publicity; and the unselfish nature which manifests itself in dedication to the Radcliffe crew spills over into other activities as well. As chairman of the Dunster House Committee, a member of the Alumni Relations Committee, and undergraduate representative to the Standing Committee on Athletics, Spencer has concerned herself primarily with the needs of others.
And she is deeply religious. She traces her faith to an incident eight years ago, when a classmate committed suicide. "I felt such a profound sense of loss, such pain. I figured he had to be somewhere else, and though I wasn't sure about God, when I prayed the pain stopped," she recounts.
Despite an initial desire to concentrate in economics--"Until Ec 10"--Spencer went on to major in religion. "It still hasn't struck me why people think it's strange," she says, adding, "People can't believe I'm a religion major, a rower, and a beer drinker. I don't see why it's such a strange combination.
While she has no specific plans when she graduates, Spencer hints that she has a special desire to have children. "I want six tall boys--enough for a basketball team with one sub. Or maybe eight--for a heavyweight boat," she laughs.
Her four years here have proved satisfying. "Rowing has been the focus of my undergraduate life--Harvard and rowing just seem to go together in my mind," Spencer says. But she concedes that lately she senses a danger of becoming too preoccupied with Harvard. "It's just about time to stop, to shut the valve off. This place is beginning to mean too much."
But Spencer is not quite ready to call it a day, not with the Sprints looming, and the Radcliffe boat possessing such a good shot at its first national crown since 1976.
"Sure, my schoolwork has suffered. But college is made for so much more than that. I won't have to ask that tragic question, 'Why didn't I ever?'"
And all those cold, gray, February workouts acquire a special significance.
Thanks to John Phillips and Joe Bertagna.