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Deueling on the Charles

Deuel, who owns the lightweight erg half marathon world record, is training to qualify for the 2020 US Olympic team.
Deuel, who owns the lightweight erg half marathon world record, is training to qualify for the 2020 US Olympic team. By Ellis J. Yeo
By Ben Stern, Contributing Writer

It’s a frigid February day in Cambridge, and Harvard students are easing into the spring term while winter keeps the weather in a vice grip. The Charles River has just thawed, and it finally looks more like a body of water than a hockey rink.

Most of the student body is inside. Kids are sipping hot chocolate, watching Netflix, or catching up with friends. Not Drake Deuel. The sophomore lightweight rower is headed to the water to train.

He’s down on the dock, frozen fingers fumbling with the oarlocks on his shell. He doesn’t tighten one of them properly. He slides his vessel off of the landing and takes a couple strokes. Then the oarlock gives way and Deuel tumbles into the river as his paddle floats away.

He’s eventually fished out of the river by an onlooker. He’s mad at himself, shaken but okay. The crew team is banned from the water for a month.

“My face was purple,” he recalls.

The Charles River gets pretty cold in the middle of winter, and it’s a small wonder Deuel emerged unscathed from the incident. His teammates think he downplays the episode too much.

“It was a near-death experience,” says Owen Niles, a sophomore on the crew team and a close friend of Deuel’s.

But the accident, Niles points out, was a direct product of Deuel’s commitment to his craft. The same passion that dumped Deuel into an icy waterway fuels him when spurs his squad to victories in regattas. The Texan wanted to be out on the river at the earliest possible instant he could, and unfortunately his day didn’t go as planned.

As much as Deuel loves to be outside, he is perhaps an even more impressive athlete inside the walls of his training facilities. Last year, Deuel set the lightweight erg half marathon world record. (An erg, or ergometer, is a special kind of rowing machine that tracks distances and times to simulate rowing on dry land.) And he didn’t just break the previous mark. He shattered it by more than a minute. He also briefly held the 10,000 meter record, but he was narrowly beaten by Maxwell Lattimer, a Canada native and 2016 Olympian.

Deuel’s teammates laud his incredible work ethic, and there is even a forum on Reddit devoted to emulating Deuel’s “training strategy” — incidentally, that thread calls Deuel “one of the best pound for pound rowers in recent memory. Such anonymous and high praise is rare for college athletes.

But Deuel cares about much more than what he can accomplish in the gym at the Newell Boathouse. He is foremost a member of the Harvard team and only secondarily an individual achiever. He takes failure hard.

“The most difficult moment of my collegiate rowing journey so far has to be our race last spring against Yale and Princeton,” Deuel remembers. “It was the final race of the regular season, and we came in undefeated as the top-ranked boat in the league with a lot of pressure and high expectations on our shoulders. Losing that race and feeling that you’ve let down the other eight...people in your boat is a crushing low. [If] you win together, you also lose together.”

That journey hasn’t always been easy. Fans usually only see the end product in athletics, and what intervenes between the honeymoon of beginning and the euphoria of achievement isn’t always pretty.

“[Growing into the team culture] was certainly a difficult transition for me, as I came in to the team in good form after a summer of primarily rowing and was put straight to the top of our team’s rankings.” Deuel recalls. “It’s a long season though, and as the spring reached its conclusion many of the more experienced guys on the team [really improved] on their fitness, and I ended up not making the cut for our top boat in our last race of the year. It was a humbling experience and one that I’ve learned a lot from."

The Dallas sophomore doesn’t dwell on the past, though. He has his sights set on lofty goals, and if his past record is any indication, he looks poised to achieve them. He’s eyeing the 2020 Olympics, and he has been training with an older Harvard alumnus on his own in order to pursue that dream. He’s clearly competitive at that level; he lost his record to Lattimer by a mere 0.8 seconds.

There are more immediate matters, however. The Head of the Charles is on Deuel’s mind, and while it takes place during the less serious fall season, it still holds an important position in the story of a year for lightweight crew.

“The Head of the Charles has been a highlight for me over my time rowing, with this year being the 4th time that I’ll have raced the event,” Deuel said.“The Charles River has a storied past, and coming from Texas it was a special experience racing on this river [that is] the center of rowing in the U.S. Now that I live here and row on the river every day, the race has taken on a different character, and I appreciate that this event allows us to hopefully share that special atmosphere with the community at large.”

And lest an observer get the impression that Deuel is nothing but an uber-intense rower, his teammates report that he has a fun side.

“I came into college thinking, ‘Oh, this guy’s the fastest lightweight in the country, and he’s probably going to be so pretentious and stuck-up about it, and he’s just going to ignore everybody else and do his own thing,’” Niles said. “But in reality, Drake is also just a normal, cool person.”

The two rowers share an unexpected common interest: cooking. Deuel has a known fondness for Blue Apron recipes, and he likes to prepare his own meals. Niles says that his friend also spends a non-negligible amount of time on Reddit scrolling through cat memes. Those two activities aren’t exactly what come to mind with respect to the stereotype of the college crew star, but clearly his teammates aren’t just blowing smoke when they credit Deuel for his humility and normalcy.

In short, Deuel is a remarkable rower, but he is a beloved teammate too. He’s looking ahead to years of difficult training, but he hopes they will pay off. And, of course, he has his fingers crossed that he won’t go on any more unplanned swimming outings in the Charles.

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Men's CrewSports FeaturesHead of the Charles 2018