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If rowing on the Charles River in 20-degree weather on the morning of The Game is not difficult enough, add in a shifting race course and a near-crash at the Eliot turn, and you will have just experienced Andrew Hamm’s first race as a novice.
Though Hamm, now a senior on Harvard heavyweight crew, is long past his days as a freshman walk-on, he points to this particular race as important in solidifying the relationship between himself and all of the other freshman novices.
“The quality of rowing was pretty bad,” Hamm joked. “I would not want a video of that rowing, but it was still really cool finishing that first race and feeling connected with the other guys who walked on.”
Just like Hamm did back in 2008, Harvard students continue to sign up by the dozens in order to take their own shots at the University’s oldest sport. The number of freshmen that attend the initial information sessions held for men’s and women’s crew as walk-ons can reach anywhere from 40 to 100 prospective rowers.
In her search for rowers, men’s lightweight assistant coach Linda Muri is known to patrol the lunch line in Annenberg and fill the calendar of Opening Days with novice crew meetings in order to generate interest in the program. Unlike most sports at Harvard, crew allows for walk-on rowers to be integrated into a Division I program, even if they have never touched an oar.
“[There] is the appeal of being able to work hard and see results from your effort,” Muri said. “In a good way, Harvard students are results oriented, and if you continue to work hard [at crew], you will continue to see results.”
Muri uses Michelle Guerette ’02 as an example of just how far the sport of rowing can take a walk-on. Guerette, a walk-on to the Radcliffe heavyweight team, competed in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and then proceeded to win the silver medal in the Single Sculls Final in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Radcliffe heavyweight crew coach Liz O’Leary was also an Olympian, exemplifying the high level of experience that can be found on the crew coaching staff. She was a member of the 1976 and 1980 US Olympic teams and even went on to coach the Olympic team in 1988.
“To get everyone rowing the same way in a month just speaks to how patient [the coaches] are,” said sophomore heavyweight walk-on Maura Church. “Every time you’re out in the water, you realize that there is a former Olympian coaching [you].”
For committed novices, the appeal to join crew reaches past the mysticism that surrounds the Weld and Newell boathouses. Most freshman walk-ons spend their high school careers as multi-sport athletes, and once they reach college, begin looking for some new way to satisfy their competitive edge. Both freshman lightweight rower Robert Hawthorne and sophomore heavyweight rower Sidney Hilker found themselves facing this challenge. Hilker was a gymnast for 15 years, while Hawthorne had been wrestling since he was six years old.
“When I decided that I didn’t want to wrestle in college at all, I knew that I wanted to do something,” Hawthorne reflected. “Athletics have always been a huge part of my life, and I couldn’t imagine just going to school and having that disappear.”
Some novices do not even wait until school starts to track down the crew coaches. Hawthorne was in contact with the Crimson coaches about joining the team before even stepping foot on campus, while Church emailed the heavyweight coaches to ask for a preseason training workout.
For the walk-ons, the first two weeks of training, known as ‘trial week’, are full of running, sprinting up the stairs of Harvard Stadium, and spending large amounts of time on the ergometer. Skill work for novices is focused on learning the technique of the rowing stroke.
“When you’re learning the rowing motion, it’s not an instinctive motion,” explained Radcliffe assistant heavyweight coach Cory Bosworth. “You’re rowing backwards.”
The technical side of rowing was the area where sophomore lightweight Joey Wall noticed he needed to put in the most work. Being a distance runner in high school allowed Wall to reach the fitness level of the recruited rowers with little difficulty, but learning technique added a whole other aspect to training.
“You constantly feel like you’re holding everybody back, so you really try to get better on the technical side,” Wall said. “It’s [there] that you really have to make strides every day.”
The merging of recruits and walk-ons happens in late fall for both the men’s teams and the women’s heavyweight team, establishing a new dynamic in the walk-on experience. Freshman lightweight Henry Klingenstein described how the almost vertical learning curve of crew keeps the novices believing that they can eventually catch up to the level of the recruits. Klingenstein credits the recruits for being helpful and accepting throughout the whole process of learning the rowing skill set.
But on the heavyweight women’s team, both Church and freshman walk-on Theresa Gebert found there to be a prevalent theme of having to “prove yourself” in the first few months of each of their novice seasons. Church, who is now on varsity herself, recalled seeing the varsity team in the boathouse and being fairly intimidated. She pointed out that this intimidation factor begins to lower significantly when the women’s heavyweight team takes part in a team-wide triathlon, consisting of a 7500-meter row on the ergometer, a four-and-a-half mile run, and a full-stadium run. This huge athletic undertaking plays a part in who gets an invitation to the winter training camp in Florida.
Gebert used this challenge as her springboard. She would run a stadium every Wednesday morning, keeping a log of her times. Finding herself at the bottom of the novice roster, Gebert trained with the goal of making it to Florida. Her hard work and qualifying time was soon rewarded with an invitation to winter training.
“I think it is true that when you are walking onto a team having no experience, you have to become a little obsessed with it,” Gebert said.
Winter training in Florida mixes together all four heavyweight, lightweight, men’s, and women’s teams, leaving less of a social distinction between walk-ons and recruits. Besides the team bonding that occurs, Bosworth also noted the importance of winter training in significantly boosting novices’ level of experience.
“In one week of double-days, we can get in almost a month’s worth of strokes,” Bosworth said. “We see big periods of growth during this period of time.”
Radcliffe lightweight coach Michiel Bartman finds the period right after winter training to be the point where a walk-on should make his or her decision as to whether or not he or she will stay on for the racing season.
“I rely a lot on walk-ons to fill the spots in the team because I unfortunately don’t have a big number to recruit,” Bartman said. “Luckily, we get a lot of new people, and my job is to keep them around.”
It is a novice’s decision whether or not he or she wants to stay on the team. For all teams, the number of freshman walk-ons drops into the single digits after the fall. Betsy Storm ’14 walked onto the women’s freshman heavyweight team in the fall of her freshman year, looking to take part in one of Harvard’s greatest traditions. Storm noted how rewarding the sport was but decided after the fall season not to pursue it further.
“I didn’t come to college to be a full time collegiate athlete,” Storm recalled. “I don’t think that I really understood that crew could potentially become a full-time NCAA sport.”
Those few walk-ons who do continue into their varsity years of crew make up a select group of athletes, but the distinction of being a walk-on soon fades out.
“You can really rise through the ranks,” Wall stated. “It’s how strong you row and how hard you pull, and it ultimately doesn’t come down to who’s a walk on and who isn’t.”
Walking on to crew offers a person the rare chance to be considered on the same level as a Division I varsity athlete during their time at Harvard. The task of taking on something that is completely new and challenging seems to be what drives a lot of these novices.
“After all, It’s fun being the dark horse,” Gebert added with a laugh.
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