Elation and Frustration

DURING SEPTEMBER of my freshman year I joined up with a strange new experience called crew. In early December, I resolved to quit when the novelty of the experience had begun to wane, and the reality of hard work had begun to show itself. On a frigid December afternoon, I went down to the boathouse with the intention of telling the coach that I was quitting. As it turned out, the coach was late for practice that day; I rowed as scheduled, and enjoyed the hard workout so much that I never got around to quitting. I spent the next two years in the lightweight crew program.

Crew was a series of frustrating moments and moments of elation, as is symbolized by this incident from freshman year. At times, I would think of rowing in 30 degree weather, with my hands and feet numb from the cold, as an absurdity with no justification. At other times, this same type of incident would be a source of challenge. The resultant elation at having accomplished a difficult task would be great.

Two exercises which were used in conditioning for crew epitomized the mental "see-saw" ride that crew was for me. The first was running up and down the steps of Harvard stadium--sometimes for fifty repetitions--during winter conditioning. The problem was not altogether physical because many people had done it before, and I was capable of enduring. There were mental barriers to be overcome--the doubts that would run through my head as I endured the painful exercise were manifold. Why was I doing it in the first place? This was a question that continually returned as the rigors of rowing and conditioning were experienced. The five races during the season could not justify the time and turmoil that was involved. There must have been something more. The satisfaction upon completion of the exercise might be one of the elements that justified the agonized endeavor in the stadium. But I'm not sure that this isn't like beating your head against a wall because it feels so good when you stop. The ordered exercise was a way of disciplining one's life so that it had function and regularity beyond that of the more oblique areas of academia. But this order could be achieved in a less strenous fashion.

The real problem with some of the crew exercises, as shown in my second example--the ergometer--was the mental anxiety which was bound to linger in anticipation of the next day's workout. The ergometer is a machine which an oarsman rows upon in practice and the act of rowing turns a flywheel. The problem is that an oarsman cannot ease his effort because that will slow the flywheel and in turn, make the next stroke all the more difficult. The exercise causes all kinds of muscles to scream out in pain. There were several times when I stopped in the middle of an ergometer workout, showered and left practice. Any doubts about the value of the enormous workload of crew were magnified while I was feeling the pain of rowing on the ergometer. It took a total mental committment which I sometimes did not have. Trying to develop a psychological readiness for the tough practices or ergometer pieces was a source of tremendous anxiety.

The racing season is the high point of the crew year, and it is this season which is said to justify the enormous amount of work which an oarsman undergoes. Princeton has been working hard and Penn has been working hard, so Harvard must work even more to be ready for the racing season. But for me, this was never the guiding reason behind crew, although winning races was very much a high point of the crew experience.


The experiences and feelings shared with other oarsmen were the essential factors which made crew worthwhile. The feeling of a boat working together and swinging along swiftly is not matched by many other sensations. After a race, the teammates in a boat are a close-knit unit, because they share the emotional and physical drain that has been spent in the race.

Crew is an aesthetically pleasing sport. I derived great pleasure from some of the visual scenes which were come upon while rowing along the Charles (the river can be beautiful at times, believe it or not). There was also a large element of aesthetic pleasure in the physical fatigue after a tough workout; in the conditioning that was maintained by pushing your body to the limits of its endurance. The exhilaration after winning a race was an untouchable moment--all the tension and anxiety which had built up beforehand was released, and there was time to savor the moment of victory.

There was a price to pay to achieve the benefits of crew, however, and for me it was very much a mental one. The anxiety about a tough workout carried over into aspects of life outside of crew. It was hard to leave tension behind at the boathouse. I was particularly bothered by the fact that I was missing out on something, that the committment to crew limited possibilities for growth in other areas.

As it turned out, I decided not to row this year. Purely in terms of time, crew was a heavy burden; and since it was such a committment mentally and physically, it regulated many other areas of my life. There is no doubt that I miss it and that crew was a very beneficial experience. Because of the intense committment that was involved, however, the rewards of crew were balanced by many moments of frustration, doubt and anxiety.

Christopher Doolin '74 lives in Eliot House.