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When it comes to the U23 World Rowing Championships, rowers are culled from the far corners of their countries, and team members often don’t row with each other until training for the tournament begins.
In a sport that relies so heavily on synchronization and trust, this arrangement can force rowers to conjure chemistry with teammates out of thin air. Some of the Harvard crew freshmen that rowed at Worlds this summer, though, have known each other for years.
Olivia Farrar and Brigid Kennedy raced against each other in high school. They both competed in single sculls and struck up a friendship at the starting line of a race. When thinking about trying out for the national team’s double sculls, Kennedy was in need of a partner. So she contacted Farrar.
“I reached out to her and said, ‘Hey, I think we could put out a fast boat,’” Kennedy recalls. “‘Would you be comfortable living in my house for the summer and training together?’ And she said yes.”
After several whirlwind weeks of practice, the pair took to the waters for the US team trials. They were among the youngest participants; most U23 hopefuls are in their 20s—seniors in college. Farrar and Kennedy were both 18. They hovered near the front of the pack for most of the trials, but “never had the top times,” according to Farrar.
However, the summer of training paid off. Five hundred meters from the finish, something clicked.
“There’s this thing in rowing called swing,” Farrar says, smiling at the memory. “You perfectly fall into rhythm with somebody else, and you get an incredible boat run. Suddenly, our bow just surged forward. We ended up walking from the 500 meter mark all the way to the finish, until there was open water between us and the competition.”
The late surge was all they needed. Having earned a spot on the national team, the duo ultimately placed 11th at the international final. Before that performance, the last time that Team USA placed in a women’s double sculls final at the U23 Worlds was in 2014.
Fellow freshman Lucas Clarke also had a special run at Worlds. He placed first in the B final and seventh overall with the New Zealand Eight this summer.
“In New Zealand, it’s quite tight-knit, so we know each other quite well,” Clarke says. “We’ve heard of [each other] at least. You get to know people very well over the course of the camp.”
The newcomers all agree that the close community of Harvard rowers has helped maintain the trust and comfort level that made them successful in the past.
“Everyone is in contact all the time, checking in on classes and how you’re doing,” Kennedy says. “It’s wonderful.”
With a strong support system in place, the freshmen can take time to work out their academics and their training. The experience of older teammates is just as valuable here as on the water. But the strict practice schedule demands discipline, and that structure helps most of all.
“Being on a team has given my college life a good structure,” Clarke says. “I get up early in the morning to go train, and I can do work at night.”
Despite experience on the international stage, Farrar, Kennedy, and Clarke all attach special significance to the Head of the Charles. Clarke has never raced at the event before, while most of his American teammates would have by the time they began college. He will debut in the 2V boat.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Clarke says. “So many people come to watch, and it’s a different type of race. It’ll be good to be racing some other top universities.”
The Head of the Charles races are also “head” events, meaning that teams are timed individually and do not compete side by side. This is unusual in Clarke’s home country, which hosts more head-to-head competitions.
For Kennedy and Farrar, residents of East Greenwich, R.I. and Pittsford, N.Y. respectively, the Charles is memorable because of its familiarity. Both have raced at the Head of the Charles in the past. As at Worlds, they will be in the same boat as part of the varsity eight.
“We come up here a fair amount to race, but to have it be your home turf is just really cool,” Kennedy says. “It’s also going to be a much faster race than I’m used to, being in an eight. I think it’s going to be magical.”
Farrar thinks that the anticipation for the Head of the Charles builds up week by week. That excitement has only amplified now that she’s on the host team.
“It’s such a great thing to finally be on the host side,” Farrar says. She pauses, and laughs. “It’s like Christmas.”
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