Walking the Talk

Between 40 and 100 rowers walk on to Harvard and Radcliffe crew each year

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.