Eight Men of Harvard
My own freshman crew experience ended on the superbly sunny morning of Harvard-Yale. One of those rare days of good weather that appear as November dies. The clouds were still and the water was still, even past the MIT boathouse where the river opens and where earlier in the season we maneuvered for passage against the various Boston sailing teams.
Of late, practices had been cold and wet. They were hours of sitting in inches of slush and slick muck. On return trips, the only thing I could see were the winking lights attached to Weeks, and the dome of the Business School’s Baker Library faintly aglow. I was expected to guide 1,500 pounds of male through this darkness and land it on a 10-yard strip of driftwood with a pulley system that belonged in the Crusades. It seemed many a night that all the injustice in the world was conspiring against me.
Crashing into the B.U. Bridge at Tail of the Charles was then, in some ways, a relief. I’d had doubts for a long time. Clearly, trying to learn how to drive a boat before learning how to drive a car was a mistake.
I had joined the crew team in September of that fall after hearing about it from a friend who later took up club soccer. I knew nothing about sports, less about rowing. I pronounced every syllable of “coxswain.” But they promised to teach me; they were desperate. They’d been rotating one of the lightweight guys into cox, and so one day I went out on the launch and the next I was a Harvard athlete.
It took me very nearly until the end to realize I’d entered a tradition.
After all, walking onto—and dropping out of—the crew team, is practically a rite of passage. The lightweights start with 80 novices, the heavyweights with 30. By junior year, the ranks have thinned to five or six. I was interviewing a guy over in Wigglesworth Hall a couple days ago, and halfway through, he got up, apologized, and said that he had to go to practice. It was a most unjustifiably random time of the afternoon and just from that, I knew it had to be crew. It’s a program notorious for chewing runners, swimmers, and quarterbacks up and spitting them out. But those who stick it through testify unanimously to a unique and formative experience. Hell, I didn’t stick it through, and I can testify to that.
What is it about rowing that is so affecting—and so appealing?
Is it the beauty of the Charles River, bending magisterially? Or the intense camaraderie within a group of eight people with whom you synchronize four miniscule movements—catch, drive, finish, recovery—for whole deciles of your life? I’ve been cited many justifications for crew’s popularity. It guarantees a daily two-hour workout supervised by world-class trainers and spurred on by 20 other guys. It is classy and surprisingly cerebral. And unlike most other sports, crew goes out of its way to advertise itself among those who have never rowed before. In recent years, coaches have stepped up recruiting, but it used to be that, especially with the lightweights, walk-ons filled boats. At the beginning of the season, freshman coaches Blocker and Bill Manning always recall those novices who moved up, even past recruits, into the 1V. “If you’re good enough,” they say, and who can resist that challenge?
These are all good reasons. But they are not all the reasons.
There is no other sport that so utterly defines this school. When you think crew, you think Harvard, and rightly so. It is not only a matter of record, although ours is an outstanding one; as in all endeavors, powerhouses appear in the most unexpected of places, the University of Wisconsin, for example, or Stanford, whose boathouse is literally in a different city. It is a sport of privilege—a shell can cost upwards of $40,000 dollars, each oar $800—but so are lacrosse, polo, sailing, field hockey, and squash. Yet none of them carries the same cache or the same touch of exceptionalism.
Harvard the university is polymorphous and chameleonic. I can’t name with any authority the labs, classes, or professors that constitute its crux. But I think more than anything else, more than final clubs and more than the Harvard Lampoon, crew encapsulates what it means to be at Harvard the institution, Harvard the name, Harvard of our childhood dreaming. Unabashedly elitist yet a meritocracy. Hierarchical yet equal opportunity. A team sport that emphasizes above all, individual skill and effort, and its corollaries, competition and ranking. Every Friday, the top 5k erg and stadium times are posted with pregnant pride in the heavyweight locker rooms. Crew not only breeds winners on the water, but it also breeds winners at life.
If these qualities sound intimately familiar, it’s because they are Harvard’s qualities.
And that’s why, year after year, legions of young men (and a few young women) flock down to Newell for a week, a month, or maybe the rest of their college careers. Through the double doors, past the four hangars of sleek, narrow boats, to the sloping dock, where an eight is just pushing off with Joycean grace, “faintly as tolls the evening chimes, our voices keep tune and our oars keep time.”
Yiren Lu ’13 is a mathematics concentrator in Adams House.