Walk-Ons Climb the Crimson Ranks

Courtesy of Dexter Louie

Most bright-eyed Harvard freshmen arrive in the Yard determined to make the most of their college experience by trying something new and different. Some learn a new language, some pick up dance or find a cause to advocate, and some find their way to the top of a nationally-ranked crew program.

When the Crimson’s top men’s lightweight crew pushes off at this weekend’s Head of the Charles Regatta, it will hold three men who showed up at the boathouse looking to try something new and found a passion that would dictate the course of their college careers.

“Coming here, crew just seemed like the quintessential Harvard sport, and it struck me as something really cool that I could do,” senior coxswain Dexter Louie says. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I figured I’d give it a shot. So I started, I walked on, and I just got hooked.”

Every fall, 60 to 80 Harvard freshmen show up at the introductory meeting for lightweight crew. About a dozen from each class will stick with it through the varsity level. And this year, three—Louie, senior Mike Silvestri and junior Jared Dourdeville—will be reprising their roles in the Crimson’s top boat.

Silvestri and Dourdeville both came to Harvard without previous rowing experience, but with athletic backgrounds and the desire to work hard.

“They both picked up the rowing stroke pretty easily—they were pretty natural that way,” says Crimson novice coach Linda Muri. “They will both work very hard. They both put in the extra time.”

Dourdeville rose through the ranks quickly, earning a spot in the top boat last spring as a sophomore—one of just three second-years in the boat, and the only walk-on of that trio.

“Jared is one of the hardest working guys on the team,” junior Ben Bayley says. “One time, we went out in a pair together, and it was just supposed to be a lighter pressure row. The whole practice, though, he just kept pulling me around, so we were never going on a straight course...The thing is, what’s ‘easy’ pressure for Jared is probably pulling super hard for everyone else.”

This season, the junior has taken over the stroke seat—a spot typically reserved for the most technically proficient rowers and is charged with setting the rhythm for the entire boat.

“For me, it’s been very rewarding to see the novice guys...pop up in the first varsity,” Muri says. “To see Jared stroking the boat this year, I feel like I’ve contributed a lot by getting him to the point where he can take over. Same thing for Michael and for Dexter and for any of the novices in the program.”

Dourdeville and Silvestri earned a silver medal at Eastern Sprints last spring, and capped off a successful season in the 1V with a bronze-medal finish at IRAs. Orchestrating the races was Louie, who has been the team’s top coxswain since last year’s Head of the Charles.

But coxing did not always come easily for the senior.

“I was one of those unfortunate coxswains that actually crashed the boat into the dock in the first few weeks, which is, like, the worst thing you can do as a coxswain,” Louie admits with a laugh. “So I was actually pretty far down the depth chart to begin with.”

Louie wasn’t alone in his early struggles. In fact, Muri finds training a new set of coxswains to be one of the tougher parts of her job.

“The hard part is getting them to be competitive—that’s one of the biggest challenges,” she explains. “And, at the same time, teaching them all this stuff about rowing when they’re not actually rowing.”